The Washington Capitals defense, now and presumably into the playoffs, goes like this:
Alzner – Carlson
Orlov – Niskanen
Orpik – Shattenkirk
The pairs leave 6’1″ Minnesota-native Nate Schmidt on the outside looking in. When asked about the lineup on Thursday, head coach Barry Trotz did not equivocate. “Nate is seven,” he said. “[Schmidt] played very well, and that makes the decisions tougher. That’s his job as a player. He’s in that seven-hole.”
There are lots of factors that inform a coach’s lineup decisions, and it’s certainly Trotz’s prerogative to make those calls, but it’s worth stating for the record that Nate Schmidt is not the seventh best defenseman on the Capitals. He’s probably among the seven best defensemen in the entire league this season.
This is an important caveat, and I’m putting up front: How “good” a player is is ultimately subjective. The quality of “goodness” should give us a good guess at how the player will do in the future. There are projection models and qualitative analyses and just plain ol’ hunches for how a player might do going forward, and everyone gets to decide for herself which of those deserve countenance. My point, which I’ll construct as narrowly as I can, is that Nate Schmidt’s results so far this season have been elite as hell.
But I’ll grant Trotz this: he is correct about Schmidt as 7D insofar as he’s ranking them based on salary (Schmidt earns $812,500 this season) or as a reflection of how he’s used Schmidt. By any other metric: not so much.
Using Corsica (for which RMNB is a contributing patron), I collected data from the 147 NHL defensemen with the most 5-on-5 ice time this season. I got their score-adjusted numbers and then found out where Schmidt ranked.
Schmidt is in the top seven for all of them. He’s in the 96th percentile or higher for all of them. So far at even strength, there literally isn’t a single defender who has done better than Nathan Thomas Schmidt. This includes pure-volume stats like shot-attempt percentage as well as quality-based stats (scoring chances, expected goals), and actual goals, over which the shooting luck can be a strong factor.
For context, here is how the rest of the Caps defense places in each stat. The number is the player’s percentile in that stat among the 147 “full-time” defenders I used before..
The only other player uniformly in the top five is Brooks Orpik, Schmidt’s most regular partner, though Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, and Kevin Shattenkirk also do very well — evidencing a Washington defensive corps that has never been better.
On the other hand, Karl Alzner, Washington’s iron man on the blue line, has fared especially poorly this season. He’s in the league’s bottom half in nearly every stat except those driven by shooting percentages (goals for, goals against, goals-for percentage). The three-year graph below by Japers Rink’s Muneeb Alam further illustrates Alzner’s decline.
It’s plain that, for whatever reason, Alzner’s performance has declined in 2016-17, though the results (i.e. goals) have been masked by charitable shooting and saving.
In Alzner’s defense, he does face more difficult competition and more minutes, though it strains credulity to suppose that Alzner would be jump from a ~40th percentile player to a 99th if only he took four fewer shifts per game. Alzner’s context (competition, ice time) hasn’t meaningfully changed in the last three years, but his performance within those minutes has fallen off drastically.
Nate Schmidt has had his own sort of difficult playing context. He’s been paired with 36-year-old Brooks Orpik, something of a possession anchor over the last five years. But instead of sinking, Orpik and Schmidt have genuinely made each other better. With Schmidt, Orpik has enjoyed a late-career resurgence that has been one of the season’s most underappreciated successes.
Here are Brooks Orpik’s relative percentages in attempts, expected goals, and actual goals. The number reflects the difference in how the team does when Orpik is on the ice versus when he’s on the bench.
|Time with Schmidt||2%||57%|
Pat has been harping on this since the beginning of the season: the Schmidt/Orpik pairing has — out of nowhere — been one of the best pairings in the entire league. While Orpik deserves a ton of credit for evolving his game and staying in excellent condition, Nate Schmidt should be showered in praise for turning Washington’s worst contract into a distinct net positive.
And that’s been the general effect Schmidt has had on his teammates this season. With a few exceptions, they do vastly better when they’re lucky enough to take a shift with Nate. This next visualization by Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz plots the with you/without you effect Schmidt has on his teammates. When the black box (the player with Schmidt) is to the top/right of the red box (the player without Schmidt), that means they’re getting more time on attack overall.
In a game recap last week, reader BKDCHI left this comment:
Can someone please explain to me what this love affair with Nate is all about? I don’t get it. All I hear on this site is he is better then Orpik, Alzner, and so on, but yet no one can tell me why they think this way with out giving me corsi stats. . .Someone explain this to me for the love of god.
I can understand that frustration, and I hope I’ve added information beyond shot-attempt/corsi stats. But in short, this is what I think the love affair is all about:
Yes, Schmidt’s got that P.M.A. Proof:
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) April 10, 2016
Here's a first: Nate Schmidt smiling! pic.twitter.com/O1pfHrRr7v
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) April 2, 2016
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) February 12, 2016
Locker: “Why do you have a bigger smile today than the last time I’ve seen ya?”
Nate Schmidt: “As of yesterday?” pic.twitter.com/x58NFCJb8d
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) February 12, 2016
Nate Schmidt smiling? This is a first. pic.twitter.com/W6qy95cKub
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) November 11, 2015
And Smiling Schmidt returns pic.twitter.com/PoOjgmBKY0
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) October 31, 2015
And this one, from today, as Schmidt skated as a healthy scratch again:
— Gene Wu #ALLCAPS (@TheWuWu) March 17, 2017
The arguments against Nate Schmidt are simple: he doesn’t play much and he doesn’t play special teams. But both of those are coaching decisions out of Schmidt’s hands. With the opportunities he’s been given this season, Schmidt could quite literally not have done any better.
It’s just my take, but here it is:
Nate Schmidt is the future of the Washington Capitals. He should have a sweater every night, and the Caps should protect him in the expansion draft.
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