The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nate Schmidt staying positive through early-season scratches

(Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

It had only been one week, but in that time Nate Schmidt watched the Washington Capitals turn into one of the league’s hottest teams, stringing together an impressive win streak in games that weren’t close. It was bittersweet for Schmidt, who was obviously happy the team was winning, but was also resigned to being in the press box as a healthy scratch.

As the Capitals notched one win after another, the lineup stayed the same, which made sense. Why tinker with something that’s clearly working? But on an off day in Vancouver, Coach Barry Trotz was asked about what he wanted to see from the three players – Schmidt, Michael Latta and Stanislav Galiev – who’d been pushed out of the lineup.

“When you’re winning, you’re more reluctant to change,” Trotz said. “The thing I look for from players that aren’t playing is if there’s a drop off in their intensity, if there’s a drop off in their ability to execute. They really should be the best guys in practice, to be honest with you.

“Guys that aren’t playing, they’ve got to do whatever it takes to get in and they should be the best guys at practice. They should be the guys that everyday I’m coming off with the coaching staff going, ‘You know, boy, that guy we don’t have in the lineup was the best guy out there at practice today.’ … A lot of times players who aren’t playing, they tend to go, ‘Well, I’m not playing,’ and feel sorry for themselves and therefore, they’re never going to get back in the lineup.”

The next day, there was a change when the Capitals went through rushes during morning skate at Rogers Arena. Schmidt was on the third defensive pairing with Dmitry Orlov, getting into his first game since a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 13.

Trotz said the decision to play Schmidt was about keeping a young defenseman active. Known around the Washington dressing room as the happiest person to ever walk this planet, staying positive is second nature to Schmidt, so maybe he could put on the best face during this early-season benching.

Before training camp even began, the third defensive pairing was projected to be Schmidt and Orlov, and Taylor Chorney, an under-the-radar offseason signing by the Capitals, was the front-runner be the team’s seventh defenseman. But three games in, Chorney had supplanted Schmidt in the lineup.

Schmidt is the better skater, but Chorney made sense as a partner for Orlov, as Schmidt and Orlov are both aggressive in jumping into the rush. Chorney tends to stay back more, so he can complement Orlov in that way. Though there was some natural frustration with not playing, Schmidt also understood he needed to be professional.

“In the competitive side of things, obviously you want to be in the game,” Schmidt said in Vancouver. “This is a team game and you’ve got to make sure you’re trying to be a part of it in any way possible. You try to help out the guys and get guys in the lineup get even better so they can go out and get two points every night.”

Assistant coach Todd Reirden wants his defensemen to know where they stand with him, so he and Schmidt talked about what got him out of the lineup to begin with. Reirden said he thought Schmidt “could’ve played a little better” in Washington’s first two games. Schmidt said he appreciated how upfront Reirden was with him, and he needed to reduce the number of turnovers and be tougher in the defensive zone.

“It’s going to be a competition, I think, for a while,” Reirden said.

“There are parts of this game that you’ve got to make sure you’re strong mentally and in a good place,” Schmidt said. “Any job can beat you up if you let it. For me, it’s just being a professional and being able to come here and understand my roles on this team. Sometimes when you’re out of the lineup, you can’t lose the other side of things, the way you are off the ice and the type of person you are in the locker room and the type of character that you have.

“You can’t lose that because once you lose that, honestly, it’s kind of detrimental to the team. You don’t need guys like that. You’ve just got to stay at an even-keel as much as you can. It’s really hard to do, but it’s something that I’ve been learning the last few years.”

The Capitals beat Vancouver, 3-2, thanks to a late-game goal by Alex Ovechkin that Schmidt was on the ice for. The next night in Edmonton, there was another change in the lineup. Schmidt was back to being a scratch.