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Will Nate Schmidt's play keep him in the Caps' lineup?

Will Nate Schmidt's play keep him in the Caps' lineup?

Karl Alzner skated for a second straight day on Thursday, though it remains unclear when the Capitals defenseman will be ready to return to the lineup.

He’s missed the last two games with an upper body injury.

“Day to day,” Trotz when asked about Alzner’s recovery.

Alzner took a twirl at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, but there was no contact involved. He was joined on the ice by only a handful of teammates.

RELATED: Trotz surprised by disallowed goal after Andersen grabbed Backstrom

If there is a silver lining to losing a big-minute blue liner in the postseason, it's this: thanks to Nate Schmidt's outstanding play the past two games, the Caps have the luxury of allowing Alzner all the time he needs.

Since entering the lineup in Game 3, Schmidt has been on the ice for five of the Capitals’ eight goals. Conversely, he’s only been on the ice for one Leafs’ goal—and the puck hit him in the visor before going to Auston Matthews in Monday’s game. 

Schmidt's plus-4 rating leads the Caps.

In addition, Schmidt has two assists, which is tied for the most among the Caps’ blue liners (in half the games). He also skated 45 seconds on the critical 5-on-3 penalty kill to start the third period in Game 4.

It's a small sample size and Alzner has been a big part of the Caps for a long time. But it begs the question: If Schmidt continues to play well, will he put the Caps’ coaching staff in a tough spot when Alzner is healthy?

Trotz wasn’t ready to go there on Thursday.

“We’ll see when he’s ready to play what our status on defense is,” is all the coach would offer up

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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.

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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.”

RELATED: Holtby falls short of claiming second Vezina

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