The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nate Schmidt searching for more consistency after first full NHL season

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Spaced out over June, we will feature end-of-season profiles for every player on the Washington Capitals, a year-in-review of sorts looking at their statistics, story lines and such. The full list of published pieces can be found at the end.

Up now, defenseman Nate Schmidt.

The saga of Nate Schmidt developed its own hashtag at one point, as the #schmidtuation was ever changing. It was used less this season, as Schmidt spent a first full season in the NHL, and he even spent a chunk of the season playing beside John Carlson on the team’s second defensive pair as injuries hit the blue-line.

His season still had its dips, most notably with him scratched for the Capitals’ last playoff game because some inconsistent play had pushed Taylor Chorney ahead of him in the lineup.

“I liked my year,” Schmidt said. “I think that there were some growing pains there, especially a little more towards the end, but that’s to be expected with the first 70 games that I’ve played [in a season]. It’d only been 29 or 30 or 31. What I found out it makes it a little harder to play at a consistent level over 70 or 80 games. Otherwise, I really thought I grew not only on the ice, but in what it takes for a full year. My first two years, I got hurt in February, so I’d never really gone through that grinding moment. It was good to know mentally that you have that in your arsenal, that it’s in your bag and it’s something you have to work off of.”

Schmidt entered the season penciled in to play on the team’s third pair with Dmitry Orlov. He’s a puck-moving defenseman considered to be the strongest skater on the blue line, but Schmidt had never played in more than 39 games in a season. He played in 72 games this year, weathering a series of scratches after the first two games of the season.

When defenseman Brooks Orpik had to miss 40 games because of a cracked femur, it was Schmidt who was promoted to play beside Carlson. Assistant coach Todd Reirden often praised his improvement in conditioning, and the coaching staff trusted Schmidt could handle the uptick in minutes and more challenging defensive assignments. After Schmidt averaged a time on ice of 13:53 in 39 games in 2014-15, he was up to 18:04 this year. He scored two goals and 14 assists.

“For a little bit there, it was like, oh man, I thought I had weights in my pocket,” Schmidt said. “It’s something that you want. You never want to see a guy go down, but as a player, you want that opportunity and to show that you can do that. Given what had happened, I thought that all of our guys played really well.”

The plan was for Schmidt and Orlov to have protected minutes in their first NHL postseason, deploying them for favorable matchups. But a three-game suspension to Orpik against Pittsburgh again thrust Schmidt onto a second pairing with Carlson, and a poor zone exit and turnover that led to a goal resulted in Schmidt getting benched the next game. When Orpik returned from the suspension, it was Chorney holding Schmidt’s old place in the lineup.

“The level of play in the [regular season] is different than the playoffs,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they got exposed at times, just like the young defensemen on Pittsburgh did, too. I think it’s important for us to know that our guys made a few mistakes that resulted in goals, but so did their guys. … Schmidtty did a good job during the year filling in at top four. I think the issue becomes there’s not much room for error in the playoffs, and when you make a mistake, it gets magnified and the confidence of the player get shaken a little bit. I think with both Schmidtty and Orlov, you see them – they wavered a little bit and became less offensive, less willing to join the rush, less their style of play and more conservative.

“I think it hurt them in the long run. I know we were well aware of it. I think it’s a process that young guys need to go through.”

What Schmidt learned from his first playoffs is the speed with which things happen and that every action has a more significant impact. His offseason will be focused on becoming more flexible, and the player known for the sunniest disposition in the locker room hopes to handle his own #schmidtuation better next year.

“The mental side of this game impacts me a lot,” Schmidt said. “I’m a very emotional guy and have a lot of energy, so sometimes I run myself out by the end of practice. Being able to be more consistent with that kind of thing, that’s where I’m at.”


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Stanislav Galiev spent the season in the NHL, but that meant little playing time

Taking on a bigger role, Matt Niskanen had his best season

In his first season with the Caps, T.J. Oshie stabilized the top line

Jay Beagle got his dream job as Capitals’ third-line center. Can he keep it next season?

Braden Holtby’s season earned him a place in the record books

Defenseman Brooks Orpik’s season was marred by injury

Justin Williams thought the season was a ‘failure,’ but his signing was a success

Taylor Chorney shined in his first full-time NHL gig

After John Carlson’s season was derailed by injury, he thrived in the postseason

After early-season slump, Andre Burakovsky found his footing in lineup