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Nate Schmidt ready to make 'next jump' into the Caps' top-4

Nate Schmidt ready to make 'next jump' into the Caps' top-4

The playoffs were a major disappointment for the Capitals as a team.

The playoffs, however, were very good for Nate Schmidt as an individual.

The 25-year-old’s postseason journey began the same way the regular season had ended—with him slotted as Washington’s spare defenseman. But that all changed in Game 3 of the opening round when Karl Alzner was unable to suit up due to injury.

Schmidt played so well that he never came back out.

“I thought the playoffs were really good for me personally,” he said recently. “I thought I could have brought a little bit more, especially in the last game. [But] I think that hopefully the management or the staff believes that I can make the next jump and move up to that ever elusive top-4.”

He certainly made a strong argument in the playoffs.

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Schmidt registered assists in each of his first two games vs. Toronto and finished the postseason with a goal and three assists in 11 games. He also led the team with a +6 rating.

That strong playoff performance followed a tough second half of the regular season for Schmidt. He was bumped out of the lineup altogether when Kevin Shattenkirk was acquired at the trade deadline. Schmidt showed well in the final four games of the regular season as a fill-in for John Carlson, who was injured at the time. But as the playoffs began, Schmidt was once again the odd man out.

As hard as that was for Schmidt, he accepted his role, worked hard to stay prepared and waited patiently for another shot.

As it turned out, he didn't have to wait very long. Alzner suffered a broken right hand in the playoff opener and by Game 3 was unable to suit up.

Schmidt got the call and never looked back.

“You have to make an impact,” he said. “When I played with John in the Toronto series, I thought we made an impact. When I played with [Shattenkirk] at the end of the [Pittsburgh] series, I thought we made an impact when we were on the ice. And that’s all I really wanted to do—just go make an impact.”

In the wake of the Caps’ elimination, Schmidt has struggled with a couple of conflicting emotions. He’s pleased that he played well. He’s devastated that the team came up way short of expectations.    

“You never want to hit the rewind button [because] everything happens for a reason,” he said. “But that’s probably the first time where I got off the ice and I didn’t really believe it had happened and that it was all a bad dream, especially those couple of minutes at the end [of Game 7] when we didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities to score. You just realized that was the way the game was going to go.”

He added: “It’s definitely on us. That’s the reason it hurts so much more [than 2016]. You see how banged up [the Penguins] were. We had a chance to beat them…”

As another offseason begins a month earlier than anyone in Washington expected, there’s a lot of uncertainty swirling. Schmidt is a restricted free agent and due a healthy raise, as are many of his teammates. He also figures to be a tantalizing option for the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

Assuming he returns to Washington, though, Schmidt is confident that he solified his worth and proved he's ready for more responsibility in 2017-18.   

“That’s where you want to be,” he said of sliding into the top-4, a move Dmitry Orlov made a year ago. “That’s the next step for me. That’s what I want to do, and I think I put myself in position to be that type of defenseman for our team.”

MORE CAPITALS: Free agency presents Alzner with first taste of unknown

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Who still needs a goalie? Possible trade destinations for Philipp Grubauer

Who still needs a goalie? Possible trade destinations for Philipp Grubauer

Heading into the expansion draft, the Caps knew they would most likely lose either defenseman Nate Schmidt or goalie Philipp Grubauer. They lost Schmidt and, in order to find a replacement,trading Grubauer may be the most viable option. But if that is the option the team decides to take, the clock is ticking.

The list of teams in need of a goalie continues to get shorter and shorter while free agency is just around the corner. This year is a buyer's market for goalies. With pending free agents like Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason and Brian Elliott among others available, those few teams looking to upgrade their starting goalie will have plenty of options.

If Washington is hoping to address their hole on defense by trading away Grubauer or at least building a trade package with him as the centerpiece, it would benefit the Caps to make a deal before July 1 when free agency opens or they may be forced to hold onto him longer until a favorable deal presents itself.

RELATED: Connolly reportedly re-signs with the Capitals

But who would be interested?

Most teams in the league would love to get a 25-year-old budding starter. To maximize what general manager Brian MacLellan could get for the young netminder, he should focus more on teams in need of a starter now. Teams like these.

Here are the teams who definitely need a starting goalie, the teams who might be in the market and the teams who need a new starter but who are unlikely to deal with Washington.

Teams who definitely need a starting goalie

Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Miller is set to become a free agent on July 1. There has been talk for months about potentially re-signing him to a short-term deal, but less than a week away from July 1, there is still no deal in place. Vancouver seems to think Jacob Markstrom will one day be able to be the team’s top starter, but I do not know what they have seen from him to make them believe that. At 27 years old, Markstrom has a career 2.91 GAA and .906 save percentage. What am I missing? Grubauer would be an instant upgrade for a team that continually refuses to rebuild.

Winnipeg Jets: Mercifully, Ondrej Pavelec will finally be leaving as a free agent. Connor Hellebuyck was given every chance to cement himself as the starter, but managed only a 2.89 GAA and .907 save percentage in 56 games last season. At only 24, it is too early to give up on him completely, but Grubauer is only 25 and has shown just as much if not more potential. While a tandem of two potential starters is never ideal (see the Philadelphia Flyers), Grubauer-Hellebuyck would certainly be an upgrade over what they had last year. Think they wouldn’t turn the reins over to two young goalies? Well, the only other goalie under contract in Winnipeg is currently the 27-year-old Michael Hutchinson who has appeared in only 99 games in his NHL career. Vancouver has to do something to address that.

Teams who might be in the market for a starting goalie

Buffalo Sabres: Just as the Canucks seem to be the only team that sees Markstrom as a starter, the Sabres may be the only team that views Robin Lehner as a No. 1. He has shown potential with a .924 and .920 save percentage in each of the last two seasons suggesting the Sabres' problems have more to do with their defense than their goaltending, but Buffalo has cleaned house this offseason with a new general manager and coach. Perhaps they could also be in the market for a new goalie as well.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche raised some eyebrows by protecting Semyon Varlamov over Calvin Pickard in the expansion draft and paid the price for it as Pickard is now a Golden Knight. Colorado needs another goalie and Grubauer presents a younger, more durable option than the inconsistent Varlamov.

Detroit Red Wings: Speaking of raising eyebrows, Petr Mrazek was one of the most surprising players left exposed to Vegas. Golden Knights general manager George Mcphee, however, didn’t bite and now the Red Wings have a problem. Clearly, there’s an issue with Mrazek and Jimmy Howard is 33 years old making the team's future in net uncertain.

Teams who need a goalie but are unlikely partners

New York Islanders: The Islanders’ goalie situation was a disaster last season which resulted in Jaroslav Halak playing in the AHL. J.F. Berube is now with Vegas which means New York is down to two goalies again, but that may not solve the issue. The real problem last year wasn’t that the Islanders had too many goalies, it’s that they didn’t have enough. If one goalie had emerged as the clear No. 1, it would have made life a heck of a lot easier. Having only two goalies may help, but it is hard to imagine the Islanders having much faith in either netminder.

Philadelphia Flyers: The Steve Mason-Michal Neuvirth tandem has not brought much success to the Philadelphia and it is time to move on. Everyone knows it and general manager Ron Hextall has reportedly been in the market for a new goalie.

The problem with both the Islanders and Flyers is that they are both Metropolitan Division teams along with the Caps. Trades within the division are not unheard of, but they can make things more complicated. Would Washington really want to trade the Islanders their franchise goalie? Is either team willing to trade what it would take to get him? The answer may well be "no" which will make life difficult for the Caps considering just how small the list of teams who need a goalie is otherwise.

MORE CAPITALS: Development Camp: 5 players to watch

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Brett Connolly reportedly agrees to terms on a new deal with Caps

Brett Connolly reportedly agrees to terms on a new deal with Caps

Capitals winger Brett Connolly has agreed to terms on a two-year contract extension, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported Monday night.

Connolly earned $850,000 in 2016-17 on a one-year deal.

RELATED: Caps issue qualifying offers, Connolly not tendered

The 25-year-old finished the season as a healthy scratch for the final six games of the Pittsburgh series. During the regular season, however, the former first rounder enjoyed a breakout, scoring a career-high 15 goals in 66 games, despite averaging just 10:41 per game—the lowest ice time total among Washington’s full-time forwards.

On Monday afternoon, the Caps announced that they had tendered qualifying offers to seven restricted free agents—Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer, Chandler Stephenson, Liam O’Brien and Travis Boyd. Connolly did not receive an offer, but it was believed at the time that the sides were closing in on a deal.

Although the season ended under less than ideal circumstances for Connolly, both the player and the team had remained hopeful of reaching an agreement.

“I'd like to have him back; he's a young guy who still has some upside,” GM Brian MacLellan said last month. “I thought he had a very good year this year.”

MORE CAPITALS: Development Camp: 5 players to watch