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Opinion: Why Nate Schmidt is still No. 7 among the Caps' defensemen

Opinion: Why Nate Schmidt is still No. 7 among the Caps' defensemen

Nate Schmidt has become a hot topic of conversation in recent weeks. The trade for Kevin Shattenkirk relegated the jovial defenseman to the seventh spot, but some wondered whether he was actually worthy of staying in the lineup. Barry Trotz said after Tuesday’s win over Minnesota that Schmidt’s play was “making our decisions tough” in terms of whether to keep him in the lineup. And yet, at Thursday’s morning skate Trotz declared that Schmidt remained the team’s No. 7 and many are asking why?

For context on why many are arguing Schmidt should be in the lineup, check out Peter Hassett’s article on the blog Russian Machine Never Breaks. It is a very compelling, in-depth view of how well Schmidt has played this season.

The argument in favor of Schmidt centers mostly on advance analytics. Schmidt’s numbers are tremendous. What Hasset found is that Schmidt ranks no lower than 7th in the NHL in shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals and goals leading Hassett to conclude that Schmidt is “probably among the seven best defensemen in the entire league this season.”

When it comes to advanced analytics, people seem to either love them or hate them. Advanced analytics are an incredible tool that can help quantify a player’s impact, but by themself, advanced analytics offer only an incomplete view of a player. That is evident in Schmidt.

For all those people who hate advanced analytics, just as many people hate the eye test. It is a completely subjective evaluation of a player based on nothing by one’s own opinion. But what the eye test is good for is preventing one from drawing conclusions from numbers that we can see are not true.

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There is not a coach or scout in the NHL who would tell you that as of right now, Schmidt is one of the top seven defenseman in the league. Period. Either you can assume everyone whose job it is to evaluate players for a living is wrong or you can accept the fact that the numbers do not paint a complete picture. That’s not to say the advanced analytics don’t matter or are inaccurate and I’m certainly not suggesting that Schmidt hasn’t played well. I am merely pointing out if we can concede the point that Schmidt is not yet an elite caliber defenseman, we can concede that advanced analytics should not be the only determining factor when it comes to evaluating his play. The bottom line is that Schmidt is not among the elite NHL defensemen yet.

Why not?

First, possession stats and shot attempts are not the only means of determining a player’s defensive worth. For example, Schmidt’s score adjusted shots for percentage is 52.94-percent. Coming in just behind him is forward Evgeny Kuznetsov at 52.85-percent. No one would mistake Kuznetsov for a “shutdown” forward. Schmidt’s Corsi percentage is 55.01-percent. That’s good, but it’s not as good as Andre Burakovsky’s 56.21-percent. Again, not a forward that is particularly known for his defensive prowess.

There are also issues that are not quantifiable that advanced analytics don’t take into account. What you don’t see in Schmidt’s Corsi numbers or shot attempts are the defensive breakdowns. You don’t see the instances in which he has jumped into the offense at the end of his shift leaving the Caps’ exposed defensively on the ensuing rush as he tries to hurry his tired legs to the bench for a late shift change.

But, if you need numbers, here are a few.

The NHL credits Schmidt with 39 giveaways this season. That’s a rate of .696 per game, the fourth highest on the team. He is also playing the most protected minutes of any defenseman on the Caps. Schmidt has the lowest percentage of defensive zone faceoffs of any of the team’s defenseman (25.4-percent) and one of the lowest on the team. That’s even lower than Alex Ovechkin’s (26.4-percent). That means he is being put on the ice primarily when the puck is in the offensive zone. His offensive zone faceoff percentage (38.5-percent) is the highest not just among his fellow blue liners, it’s the highest on the team. This demonstrates a concerted effort by the coaches to keep him from getting tougher minutes in the defensive zone.

When the coaches don’t have much faith in a defenseman to play defense, that’s an issue. It also shows us why his possession numbers are so high.

It’s easier to get positive numbers when it comes to shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals and goals when the majority of your playing time comes with the puck in the offensive zone.

But while we can see that Schmidt may not be as elite as the advanced stats indicate, that does not explain why among the eight blueliners on the roster, he is considered No. 7.

I’m not going to go through and rank each defenseman 1 through 8, this post is already long enough and whatever stats, arguments or observations I make, they all have counters. There is simply no way to make a definitive ranking. Instead, I will try to explain why of the eight defensemen, there is no one I would currently take out for Schmidt.

The majority of us can agree that Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson need to be in the lineup, right? There is no way those three players are not among the Caps’ top six defensemen. That leaves us with Shattenkirk, Orpik and Alzner.

Shattenkirk is clearly still adjusting to the team and we’re definitely seeing some growing pains to be sure, but Shattenkirk showed his potential in St. Louis and we’ve seen flashes of it with the team. From a practical standpoint, he’s someone who needs to be in the lineup so he can continue adjusting. But if you’re looking for who to put into the lineup in a Game 7, do-or-die situation and you just need your six best defensemen on the ice, I am taking Shattenkirk over Schmidt. Like Schmidt, he is a skilled-puck mover but he is a stronger defensive player who plays with a more physical edge and is about 15 pounds bigger.

Shattenkirk has four assists in seven games with Washington despite not playing particularly well. If that’s what he’s like when he’s struggling, clearly he will be even more of an asset when he finally adjusts to his new team.

Orpik has played extremely well this season, thanks in large part to being partnered with Schmidt. But how much of that has to do with Schmidt and how much of that has to do with the fact that he is getting the lowest percentage of defensive zone faceoff starts since the 2011-12 season and the highest percentage of offensive zone faceoffs ever in his career? That certainly helps quite a bit. Orpik’s renaissance season is the result of his changing role with the team, not solely on the fact that he has played alongside Schmidt.

Orpik also brings intangibles that are not quantifiable. There is a leadership and respect factor that matters to the players. Consider what happened Tuesday when he took a hit from Minnesota’s Ryan White. Tom Wilson was on top of White before he even knew he was in a fight. Wilson was there so fast, in fact, that he received an additional minor penalty for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct.

And yet, when asked about it after the game, Trotz said, “I’ll take those all day long. We thought it was a little bit of a high hit, especially one of your more respected guys on your team. I think that says a lot about Brooks as a leader and what he means to everybody.”

I also talked to Wilson about it at Friday’s practice and he made a point of calling Orpik “one of our very respected guys in this locker room.”

That matters to players. You saw it from how Wilson reacted. Now imagine telling Orpik and the rest of the team that he’s going to be scratched in favor of Schmidt. Why? Well, because his advanced analytics are pretty good. That would not sit well.

Which brings us to Alzner. Alzner is the polar opposite of Schmidt in that he gets tougher minutes—he has the lowest percentage of offensive zone faceoff starts among the team’s defensemen—and really bad analytics. His numbers are so bad, in fact, that some have speculated that perhaps he is still feeling the effects of sports hernia surgery that he underwent in the offseason.

First, if Alzner is not back to 100-percent yet, the training staff and the team is well aware. Second, let me tell you about the competitiveness of Trotz. Trotz is so secretive about his gameplan, he will not reveal who his starting goalie during the media availability two hours before puck drop. If the training staff believed Alzner’s health was a detriment to the team, Trotz would not be relying on him so much defensively. Because of that, I have to assume that he is healthy enough to remain in the lineup.

Is he the stalwart defenseman he has been in years past? Clearly not. Am I re-signing him over Shattenkirk or T.J. Oshie this offseason? Not a chance. But the fact remains, he is one of the best defensive players on the team. That’s inarguable. I would rank him just behind Niskanen. If you take Alzner out of the lineup you are losing a top defensive player and penalty killer. Schmidt cannot make up for that loss because he is a very different type of player.

If I am constructing a defensive lineup for the Caps, I’m putting in my two best defensive players in (Niskanen, Alzner), my three best puck movers who I also trust in the defensive zone (Orlov, Carlson, Shattenkirk) and the team leader who is enjoying a renaissance season (Orpik). That leaves Schmidt as No. 7.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Schmidt has enjoyed a tremendous season and was fantastic in his two games back during Shattenkirks’ suspension. I want a player I can trus to play well if I need to plug him into the lineup. Schmidt certainly fits the bill.

The one caveat to all of this is that while I have Schmidt No. 7, I would not hesitate to put him in the lineup in the playoffs if I believed the team needed a spark. He has earned that with his play and Trotz should feel comfortable using him if needed.

But what he has not earned is a regular spot in the lineup every night. At least not yet.

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Caps re-sign Djoos, could he be a potential Schmidt replacement?

Caps re-sign Djoos, could he be a potential Schmidt replacement?

In the wake of losing Nate Schmidt to the Vegas expansion draft, the Capitals re-signed defensive prospect Christian Djoos to a two-year, $1.3 million contract with the Caps, Brian MacLellan announced Wednesday.

Re-signing Djoos, a restricted free agent, became a huge priority for Washington in the wake of the expansion draft. Djoos was expected to compete along with Madison Bowey for a spot on the NHL roster next season even before Schmidt's sudden departure. Now the team may find itself in need of both prospects to take on full-time roles next season.

RELATED: How do the Caps recover from the loss of Schmidt?

The Caps are returning Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson next season, all who are expected to take top-three roles. Behind them are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney. That gives the team only five defensemen when most teams carry seven.

Djoos, 22, showed he could be ready for the move up to the NHL with a 58-point season in Hershey. He is a great skater and tremendously skilled, but there are questions about his size. He is 6 feet tall and weighs only 164 pounds, putting him on the small side. Does he have the skill to make up for that lack of size? That is what the Caps will be asking themselves this offseason.

One other thing to consider si the fact that Djoos is no longer waiver exempt. he could prove to be a pretty tempting prospect for any teams if the Caps try to call him up or send him to the AHL. Wherever he starts at the beginning of the season, Washington or Hershey, is likely where he will stay.

MORE CAPITALS: MacLellan says prospects 'ready to make the jump' to replace Schmidt

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How do the Caps recover from the loss of Nate Schmidt?

How do the Caps recover from the loss of Nate Schmidt?

All of Caps nation is reeling over the loss of Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft. A fan-favorite and budding top-four defenseman, his departure stings not just because of the loss of his personality, but because of the role he was expected to take next season.

Schmidt was ascending to a top-four role on the Caps next season, but that plan is in shambles and rebuilding the defense now becomes one of the team’s top priorities for the offseason.

Among the team’s current defensemen, there is no clear candidate to take Schmidt’s spot. Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson stand as the team’s top three. Behind them are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney, neither of whom anyone could reasonably expect to take on a top-four role.

In a statement released on Tuesday, MacLellan said, “We feel we have a young group of up-and-coming defensemen who will now have an opportunity in Washington and are ready to make the jump with our club.”

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MacLellan is no doubt referring to Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos. Both players were expected to compete for a roster spot this season, but it was thought there would be room for only one on the third pairing. Now the Caps have two spots in the lineup open.

At the end of the season, the Caps had a choice of what direction they would go in next year. They could start over and rebuild or try to retool the team on the fly. Rather than start over they chose to retool, meaning they are still gunning for postseason success. A rebuilding team can afford two rookie defensemen in the lineup, but a team looking to make the playoffs and push for a deep run likely cannot. That is not a knock on either Bowey or Djoos both of whom have high ceilings and could develop into very good NHL players, there just seems to be a disconnect between the direction the team wants to go in next season and having to play both Bowey and Djoos regularly in the lineup.

If the Caps cannot replace Schmidt internally, what about externally?

With Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitry Orlov all in need of new deals, the Caps are not expected to have much money to work with this summer and top-four defensemen don’t come cheap. Schmidt was at the end of his contract, but as a restricted free agent, the team could have signed him for much cheaper than any top-four defenseman they can find in free agency. Even if the Caps could make a splash in free agency, there is not a whole lot to work with among the players available.

Does this reopen the door for the team to re-sign Alzner? Washington is the only team he has ever known and he made clear at the end of the season that he is not looking forward to being a free agent. The Capitals, however, will likely not be able to afford what Alzner could get on the open market. He may be willing to take a discount to stay in Washington, but MacLellan must also consider the changing landscape of the NHL. The league is moving more towards speedy, puck-moving blueliners and farther away from stay at home defensemen like Alzner. Can the Caps really afford a top-six that includes both Alzner and Orpik in today’s NHL? Probably not.

So what are the Caps to do? The answer may come in the form of a trade.

Losing Schmidt means that Philipp Grubauer remains in the fold. His position in the team, however, has not changed. Braden Holtby remains the starter and prospect Ilya Samsonov is still seen as the team’s future starter. That makes Grubauer, a high-value asset, expendable.

Having a dependable backup is important, but a top-four defenseman is more so. One will play 20-30 games per season unless the starter suffers an injury, the other will be expected to have a major role every night.

When MacLellan spoke to reporters in May, it did not sound as if he was planning on making any major moves this offseason. The loss of Schmidt may now force his hand.

MORE CAPITALS: MacLellan says prospects 'ready to make the jump' to replace Schmidt