Weber gave the team an additional physical presence on the back end for some balance. Washington was happy with the defensemen it featured in the postseason last year, but some additional options could’ve been useful. Tim Gleason, a similar style of defenseman to Weber and also acquired before the trade deadline, was an addition the Capitals considered successful, but against speedier teams, like the Rangers in the second round, perhaps a puck-mover would’ve been preferable.
At the time, Schmidt wasn’t yet a full-time NHLer, the staff not comfortable enough to put him in the lineup, and Orlov hadn’t played all season because of a wrist injury. Those two have been in Washington’s lineup most of the season, and they’ll get their first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs when they likely comprise the third pairing in a first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, but the Capitals now have flexibility to make an adjustment if needed.
“One of the things you enjoy as a coach is the strategy in how to use all of your personnel that you have in front of you and to their strengths and to their weaknesses,” assistant coach Todd Reirden said last week.
Since Carlson returned to the lineup after a procedure for an undisclosed lower-body injury, the Capitals have mostly had Schmidt and Orlov in the lineup, with the last two games being the exception. At first, Carlson was paired with Schmidt and Orlov with Orpik, but in the last week of the season, Washington returned to the defensive pairs it started the season with, as Orpik and Carlson were reunited thus creating a third pair of Schmidt and Orlov.
That every pair except for the top one of Alzner and Niskanen has rotated also gives the Capitals comfort. For example, if you’re facing a line that’s speedy or you’re looking for offense from your blue-line, then maybe Carlson and Schmidt are paired together again.
“In this last month or three weeks since John has been back, I think I’ve really been able to set us up for pretty much any scenario of whatever our opponents’ style and lineup looks like,” Reirden said. “I think we’re prepared for it.”
The Capitals’ game against the Pittsburgh Penguins provides a good indicator of how the division of minutes will likely look, with the top-four defensemen leaned on heavily. Orlov and Schmidt played around 10 minutes each, both possessing tremendous offensive upside but also occasionally error-prone. The coaching staff’s trust in them now is “not even comparable” to what it was when the season started.
“I think they went through that stretch 15 or 20 games into the year, when they both actually started playing some of their best hockey, and it was together,” Reirden said. “… Especially Dmitry after a full year off and with Nate just becoming a full-time fixture on an NHL roster, it’s always a challenge to get that consistency from those players. But it’s completely night and day.”
Against the Flyers, who play a physical and grinding style, Weber could come in handy. Since Washington traded a third-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for him, he’s played in 10 games – including the last two – and has averaged 13 minutes and 59 seconds of ice time while registering a minus-one. Because Reirden previously worked with Sabres Coach Dan Bylsma, Weber came to the Capitals already familiar with the defensive system.
A possible scenario for Washington is starting the Philadelphia series with a third pair of Orlov and Schmidt, and if the Capitals feel they need more physicality from the defense, turning to Weber as a potential substitute for Schmidt.
“I think he’s played well when he’s played for us,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said of Weber. “He’s got a good net-front presence. He does a good job stopping the cycle. He’s got good strength, has a little edge to him. If I think our coaches feel we need that element in our lineup, he’ll be in. If they think we need to be a little more of a skating, puck moving third pairing, he’ll be out.”