According to The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, Nate Schmidt will serve as the team’s seventh defenseman for the rest of the season and sit tonight against Nashville. This decision is somewhat of a surprise, as reports had previously suggested that Brooks Orpik might get scratched with Kevin Shattenkirk returning from a two-game suspension.
After sitting out for five games, Schmidt was excellent filling in for Shattenkirk. Besides scoring a nice goal to open the scoring against Minnesota, Schmidt went plus-13 in five-on-five shot attempts during his two games back in the lineup. Schmidt sitting after such an excellent performance is a tough by-product of the Caps’ stacked blueline, especially after the Shattenkirk acquisition.
This season, Brooks Orpik and Nate Schmidt have been the Capitals’ best defense pairing, posting the highest on-ice possession at 57.7 percent. And they’ve played the most minutes at five-on-five of any pairing at even strength, despite nominally being considered third on the depth chart. They also have the best scoring-chance percentage of any Caps’ pairing and the best Corsica expected goals-for percent (meaning they tend to allow lower quality shots).
|Pairing||5v5 TOI||Shot-attempt %||Expected goals-for %|
If Schmidt were to continue playing, Barry Trotz would have to scratch a veteran player. With the obvious success of the Niskanen-Orlov pairing and the value of John Carlson’s offensive output, Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik would be the best candidates to sit.
We noticed earlier this season that Alzner has been making almost all of his teammates worse. While Orpik has enjoyed a resurgence this season, Alzner has taken a step back. Of the five Caps pairings with at least 200 minutes at five-on-five, the two worst (in regards to possession) are Alzner’s pairings with Niskanen (51.9 percent) and Carlson (47.3 percent). Those duos also have the lowest scoring-chance percent and the lowest expected goals-for percent.
The gulf between the on-ice results of Alzner and Orpik grows considerably when we examine the two players’ performances on the penalty kill. When Alzner is on the PK, the Caps allow more shot attempts per 60 minutes at 86.1 than when any other player is PKing. Orpik is on the ice for only 68.6 shot attempts against per 60 minutes, fewest of any Caps PKer with more than 100 minutes at four on five.
This is not to say that Alzner is bad. The Caps have no bad defensemen at the moment, such is their embarrassment of riches. But whether Alzner is still nursing his way back from his offseason sports hernia surgery (a notoriously difficult injury to return from), or whether he’s just having an off year, the Caps are better with Orpik and Schmidt playing together than with Alzner and Carlson or Alzner and Schmidt.
Scratching a veteran is always difficult. With Orpik, he is considered a leader in the locker room and on the ice. He has also already been asked to take a diminished role on the third pairing this year. And with Alzner, it’s possible that his ongoing iron-man streak factors into whether Schmidt could temporarily take his spot in the lineup. Trotz may not be interested in breaking one of the longer ongoing streaks of consecutive games played in the NHL just to experiment.
“Our top-six, that’s what you are going to see tonight,” Barry Trotz said after the morning skate Thursday. “That’s our top-six. Nate is seven, and he played very well and made decisions tougher. He’s in that seventh hole, and that’s perfect – it puts pressure on everybody.”
But the Caps still do have a lot to play for, and the games down the stretch are key. And after the decision today, they are not icing the best lineup they can night-to-night with Schmidt sitting.
Stats courtesy of Corisca.Hockey.
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