Coach Adam Oates met with rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt before the Capitals embarked on their road trip. They talked about how Schmidt could better handle certain situations in the defensive zone, but also about how he can continue to build on the strong impression he’s made through the first four games.
“I thought he’s done a very good job for so early in his career, coming in and playing tough hockey, [facing] teams for the first time,” Oates said. “The NHL’s a tough, tough game, and I thought he’s done a really good job. Now we’ve got to go on the road, in tough environments, and he’s got to be ready to handle that.”
There’s a certain amount of adrenaline that comes with making one’s NHL debut, and it’s logical to expect that will wane at some point. Schmidt said he doesn’t feel like he’s reached that juncture, what with Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg only being his fifth in the NHL, but he wants to make sure he’s learning as much as he can as quickly as he can.
Through his first four games, Schmidt was on the ice for three of Washington’s 10 goals against, including one that came during four-on-four play. There have been times when his skating and ability to make a smart first pass have helped him, and the Capitals, avoid trouble. But he’s also been caught out of position or on the losing end of a one-on-one battle along the boards.
While it often takes young players time to adjust to the speed of the game, Schmidt has handled that aspect rather well. For Schmidt, who is generously listed at 6 feet and 194 pounds, the biggest adjustment is learning how to approach defensive matchups against much bigger opponents.
“It’s more defending with my feet and stick. I’m not going to go out and try and handle a guy like [Jason Chimera], straight up. I’m not going to win that battle,” Schmidt said. “It’s learning how to use your feet and stick in certain situations where you can maybe poke the puck off the stick or whether it’s trying to pin for help, things like that. For a guy my size, to try and take on some of the bigger guys wouldn’t be to my advantage and it would wear me out a lot faster throughout the game.”
Schmidt is expected to be paired with Mike Green for a second consecutive game when the Capitals take on Winnipeg, and the Minnesota native admits he has to consciously not get caught up in watching his offensively-gifted partner when they’re on the ice together.
He is appreciative of what he’s been able to glean from Green thus far, though, and continues to learn as much as the two-time Norris Trophy finalist and the other experienced defensemen can teach him.
“I’ll ask all the D as many questions as I can just to figure out how they do everything they do,” Schmidt said. “A guy like Greener, who is so good at using his stick and feet in the D-zone, I want to understand that.”
Schmidt’s insatiable appetite to keep learning has impressed his teammates.
“He’s a great little player, he moves the puck well, he skates well, and he’s got a good shot. That’s some of the things you need to be a skilled defensemen,” Green said. “It’ll take some time for us to gel together as a pair but he’s like a sponge. He’s ready to soak up as much information as he possibly can, so I’m willing to give it to him.”