Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik has missed 18 consecutive games (19 counting Monday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes), with a lower-body injury. In his absence, 24-year old Nate Schmidt has stepped up and taken on a bigger role-playing alongside John Carlson.
In the 18 games Orpik has missed, the Capitals have gone 14-2-2. In the 14 games before that, with Orpik in the lineup, the Capitals went 10-4-0. While head coach Barry Trotz has repeatedly said that Orpik’s injury is a minor one, it’s clear that it is the exact opposite. While Orpik is no doubt an important player for the Caps, Schmidt has proven fully capable of handling the workload. So much so that it now begs the question: what happens to Schmidt once Orpik returns (which likely won’t be until after the New Year)?
The most logical answer is that Schmidt is dropped to the third-pairing role he played before being promoted to the top-pairing. But after playing so well, it would seem to be unfair to Schmidt to demote him to a lesser role and less playing time. Although not certain, Orpik will likely be rusty after missing more than a month of hockey. Schmidt has taken Orpik’s place in penalty killing and has fared well against the opposition’s top lines. Schmidt is averaging 18:10 of playing time and is already set to break his previous career-high of playing time of 542 minutes of ice time; he currently sits at 491. But there are things that differentiate the two. For starters, Schmidt is only 6’0”, compared to Orpik’s 6’2”. Schmidt isn’t as physical as Orpik and is more of a two-way defenseman, jumping up into the rush occasionally. But even still, Schmidt’s play as of late has made a case for him to be kept on the top-pairing once Orpik returns. And having a player that earns $5.5 million per season on the third-line for the next four years isn’t ideal for either the Caps or Orpik. (See Mike Green)
If there ever was an important thing to have in today’s NHL, it’s defensive depth. The Capitals have several reliable options in the AHL with the Hershey Bears, but they already have an equally-reliable option in offseason signing Taylor Chorney. Chorney has been an excellent fit in Trotz’ system, and having a great defensive coach in Todd Reirden helps. Chorney has recorded four assist in 23 games played, to go along with a plus/minus plus-7. He also plays well positionally, and has seen some time on the penalty kill. As the Pittsburgh Penguins have shown over the last two seasons, lack of defensive depth can hurt.
As mentioned above, Orpik may be a bit rusty after missing so much time, which means Trotz may want to limit his minutes until he is fully comfortable. That would give Schmidt more time to sharpen his game and allow Orpik to get back into game shape. And while Orpik is important to the Caps, Schmidt is deserving of more responsibilities and playing time. What do you think Caps fans? Do you think the Caps should demote Schmidt back to the third-pairing, or is there some other possible solution?
By Michael Fleetwood