Nate Schmidt sat at his stall inside the Washington Capitals’ practice facility earlier this week, basking in the reality of his current role on the team. Less than 30 games into his NHL career, the rookie defenseman often finds himself skating more than 20 minutes a night and is paired with John Carlson against the toughest matchups opponents have to offer.
“If you would have told me this about a month ago, I don’t know that I would have believed you,” Schmidt said.
The Capitals didn’t expect things to unfold this way, either, but 28 games into the season, here they are: relying on Schmidt and several other inexperienced defensemen like him, for better or worse. That means finding ways to overcome rookie mistakes on a nightly basis and leaning on established blue-liners not only to handle a significant workload but to help minimize the impact of any errors from their teammates.
It can make for an overwhelming situation for the defense as a whole and lead to the type of inconsistency that has become part of Washington’s season thus far.
“It makes it difficult, and I think that’s one of the reasons we fight to get out of our own end at times,” Coach Adam Oates said. “There’s always that ‘sophomore jinx’ term — guys have great first years, and what happens in the second year? The game is not that easy. There’s a drop-off sometimes. We’re kind of trying to watch that all of the time with the kids.”
Top-level defensive depth was a deficiency for Washington heading into the season, one that was exacerbated when veterans John Erskine and Jack Hillen were both forced out of the lineup with injuries in October. While neither Erskine nor Hillen is likely a long-term solution to rounding out the top four, both offered familiarity and stability.
With Erskine and Hillen sidelined, the Capitals’ lineup on any given night has featured two to three defensemen who have fewer than 70 games of NHL experience in Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov, Steve Oleksy and Alex Urbom. Schmidt has been the only one with long-term sticking power so far, showing he can handle increasing responsibility, but he’s still a relatively raw talent transitioning from the NCAA at Minnesota to playing three and four games a week in the NHL.
“Number one, we were forced into it, and hey, great for the kid. He’s done it,” Oates said when asked about pairing Schmidt with Carlson. “He’s doing a good job. He’s handling it. We’re coaching him through it and giving him good partners. He’s coming along okay so far.”
On Thursday, Washington added another green player to the active roster when it recalled Patrick Wey, a fourth-round pick in 2009 who only made his American Hockey League debut Nov. 14. If Wey suits up for his debut with the Capitals this weekend, he’ll be the 12th defenseman to play a game for them this season and the sixth in that group who has played in fewer than 100 NHL games.
“You just have to adjust accordingly in terms of the experience. They obviously are a little bit inexperienced and don’t understand certain situations, but that only comes with playing games and minutes,” said veteran Mike Green, who has been paired with both Schmidt and Urbom for various parts of the season.
Green understands the need for teams to turn to young players and that the only way they improve is with time, but he also acknowledged he has to avoid trying to serve as a counterbalance for a younger partner so he can stay on track with his own game.
Oates accepts that rookies and veterans alike will make mistakes, but he knows trying to negate a teammate’s miscues can lead to experienced players overcompensating.
“You expected a certain pass; you didn’t get it, and now you’re out of position. Now you’re trying to recover, and that leads to a goal, say,” Oates said. “There’s no perfect formula. We’re just trying to figure it out as we go.”
Barring a trade to bring in veteran defensive help, the Capitals will have to continue figuring out how to progress as a group and overcome the often-unpredictable results of unseasoned blue-liners. Asked last week whether he believed Washington could achieve its goal of being a true playoff contender with this group of defensemen, General Manager George McPhee was vague.
“Time will tell. We’ll monitor here as we move along, but there’s not a whole lot you can do when you miss a couple veteran defensemen,” McPhee said. “You have to play the guys in your system, and that’s what we’re doing. They’ve been pretty good a lot of nights, and there are other courses, but this is the one we prefer now. Let’s try our own guys and see how they do.”