For three seasons now, the Caps have had the luxury of being able to ice a terrific third defensive pairing (behind top-fours that have met with varying degrees of success). In Barry Trotz’s first season, that duo was an underutilized Mike Green teaming up with an underutilized Nate Schmidt in the latter’s sophomore season to skate to a 54.8 Corsi-For percentage (CF%) in 313 minutes. (Pair data throughout this post comes via Corsica.Hockey)
Last season, Schmidt skated 343 minutes with Dmitry Orlov in that same role, and the pair posted a stout 57.6 CF%, good for sixth-best in the League among duos with 300 or more five-on-five minutes together (L.A.’s Drew Doughty and Brayden McNabb led the way at 60.1%).
This season, the Caps’ third pair (when healthy) has been Brooks Orpik skating alongside Schmidt and no pair in the League that has skated 200 minutes has a better CF%. Here’s the top-five, just to give you a bonus warm-and-fuzzy:
The common thread among the Caps’ successful third pairings, of course, has been Nate Schmidt, which begs one obvious question: could Nate Schmidt succeed in a larger role higher up the depth chart?
Let’s start from the premise that, in his current role, Schmidt is making his partners better. That would seem to flow logically from the data above when coupled with the fact that each of Green, Orlov and Orpik have been worse (by CF%) away from Schmidt than while skating with him during the sampled spans. But does that hold across the rest of the Caps’ D-corps? Not necessarily. Take a look (2015-17, chart via Corsica):
You can see Green, Orlov and Orpik all better with Schmidt (and Schmidt better with each of them as well. Other defenders? Matt Niskanen has been pretty much the same player with or without Schmidt; John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Taylor Chorney have been worse with Schmidt than without him (the latter two markedly so). So it’s a mixed bag, perhaps owing to sample size and familiarity - Alzner (72 minutes with Schmidt), Niskanen (94) and Chorney (176) are the smallest “together” samples on the chart.
But another contributor, no doubt, is the role these players and Schmidt are playing “with” and “without.” Specifically, when Schmidt has skated with Green, Orlov and Orpik, it’s been in a third-pairing role; when those guys have skated without Schmidt during those spans, it’s generally up the depth chart, facing less-favorable deployments. In other words, they’re playing tougher minutes away from Schmidt and easier ones with him. Looking at Schmidt’s deployments with regards to three metrics makes this all pretty clear. First up, quality of competition and teammates (these next three charts come via HockeyViz):
You can clearly see a separation between the top-four (which has basically had one major partner switch within the group) and the three-way third pair, just as you can with zone starts:
Lastly, here’s deployment by score state:
The first two charts are pretty self-explanatory - Schmidt (and his third-pair cohorts) have faced forwards and defensemen who play less than their teammates (i.e. are generally worse), and have had to start shifts in the defensive zone less frequently than their Caps teammates. This third chart shows that Schmidt plays around one-third (or more) of the Caps’ five-on-five minutes when they’re (infrequently) trailing games, but when the game is tied or the Caps are up a goal or two, that percentage drops under 30%.
You get the point - Nate Schmidt plays relatively (emphasis on relatively) easier minutes than the Caps’ top-four defensemen... and kills them. That is exactly what’s been asked of him, and he’s doing it.
But can he do more?
There’s really only one way to answer that, but short of actually seeing him try, we can perhaps glean something from his one extended stint of playing in the top-four, that coming last season when he was paired with Carlson in Brooks Orpik’s absence. But don’t take my word for it - HockeyViz visualizes Schmidt’s career five-on-five ice time neatly:
So... how’d he do?
In 573 five-on-five minutes together in 2015-16, Schmidt and Carlson posted a 48.4 CF% and a 53.9 Goal-For percentage. Not abysmal, but, unsurprisingly, not “third-pair Nate Schmidt dominant.” Tougher minutes, worse results.
And how has Schmidt handled top competition so far this season? Here’s one way to look at it:
Keeping in mind his overall deployment that we discussed above, it looks like Schmidt has struggled against top competition, except when skating with the Caps’ terrific third line, and has had mixed results against second-tier competition when out there with top-six Caps forwards.
But that’s not as bad as it might sound. As reference points, here’s the last season and a half for the Caps’ current top-six:
There aren’t too many defenders who can consistently beat top talent, and the Caps more or less have one in Matt Niskanen... and maybe another in Dmitry Orlov.
So what to make of young Nate Schmidt (who, by the way, it seems almost surely will be available for George McPhee and the Las Vegas Golden Knights to consider in the upcoming expansion draft)?
At the moment, he is ideally suited for a healthy Caps blueline’s third-pairing, getting favorable deployments and crushing them. But with John Carlson out, Orpik has been elevated into the top-four and the team has struggled from a shot-share perspective (including the third pair of Schmidt and Chorney, via Puckalytics):
Circling back to the first chart in this post, even with Carlson out, the Caps have two pairs that have played at a 57% Corsi-For clip so far this season. And while Orpik and Schmidt have done it in a third-pair role, it’s probably worth seeing if they can do it as a second pair, with Niskanen and Orlov reunited as a top pair. It’s hard to imagine that alignment being any worse than what we’ve seen over the past half-dozen games.
Luckily for the Caps, it looks as if Carlson will be back in the lineup tonight, but all of this is worth keeping in mind for the next time there’s a vacancy in the top-four - Nate Schmidt might not be ready for a full-time top-four role on a deep team with Stanley Cup aspirations, but, at a minimum, he should be in line for a temporary top-four role on this team when needed. And until then (and at the risk of stating the obvious which seems perhaps less obvious to some decision-makers than others), he should stay in the lineup in a third-pair role that he has positively crushed for years now.