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With Brooks Orpik out, John Carlson taking on leadership role for the defense

(AP Photo / Alex Brandon)

MONTREAL — Despite the Washington Capitals’ record without Brooks Orpik – 7-1-1 in the games he’s missed with a lower-body injury – Coach Barry Trotz has said that the team misses its veteran top-pair defenseman, more for his presence in the locker room.

He’s an alternate captain, one of the players Trotz said helped change the culture last year when there was a coaching shakeup. The 35-year-old usually skates beside John Carlson as the team’s top defensive pairing, a sort of mentor for him. But with Orpik out of the lineup, Carlson has taken on a similar role with his new partner in Nate Schmidt.

“I think John has benefitted from Brooks, and now instead of being the student, he’s a little bit of the teacher when it comes to playing with Nate,” Trotz said. “They’ve started to have some chemistry.”

Orpik will miss his 10th game on Thursday night, and while he’s missed more than three weeks with an injury the Capitals have said is not serious, Carlson has worn the “A” on his chest, the leadership presence for the defense. He entered this season as the team’s undisputed top defenseman at just 25 years old, recently playing in his 400th straight game against Tampa Bay.

Schmidt is just a year younger than Carlson, so being a mentor for him doesn’t seem as natural as it was for Orpik to help Carlson. But the two had vastly different paths, with Carlson playing in his sixth NHL season and Schmidt still not having played 100 NHL games over the course of his career.

“I think that they easily relate to one another in terms of being roughly the same age and things that are going on in their lives and different stuff, but it’s been a real credit to what John has done in terms of taking him under his wing, helping him, making him feel comfortable on the ice, talking to him on the bench all of the time and working with him in practice,” assistant coach Todd Reirden said. “They’re sorting through things together, but John, I think, has really stepped up in that regard. …

“Just the fact that he now has a letter on his jersey with our team is a huge sign that we respect what he’s done and what he’s brought to our blue line. We saw the impact it had on John’s career last year, playing alongside Brooks Orpik, who’s been an NHL veteran for a long time. I think that John saw the importance of that and his ability to give back and do the same thing for Nate is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

Carlson said it’s easier to mentor someone when you’re actually playing with them, as he wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to Schmidt about a play he wasn’t on the ice for. Carlson has also learned from Schmidt, with his endlessly positive personality.

“I just think the game is instinctual,” Carlson said. “The more and more you converse with your partner about what you feel out there or if you see something or feel like you can do something out there and talk about it, I think that’s the way to get better and learn from each other.”

Here’s the Washington Capitals’ expected lineup against Montreal:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams

Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Andre Burakovsky

Brooks Laich-Michael Latta-Tom Wilson

Defensemen

Nate Schmidt-John Carlson

Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen

Dmitry Orlov-Taylor Chorney

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby

Philipp Grubauer

Scratches

Chris Brown

Stanislav Galiev

Brooks Orpik (lower-body injury)

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