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Scott Lowe The Hockey Writers

Published on Wednesday, December 9, 2015





Capitals Keep Winning Thanks to Next Men Up

Many years ago, long after Bobby Bowden had built his Florida State football program into a national powerhouse, there was an interview with him that always comes to mind when teams are facing injuries. Hearing that the Washington Capitals might take the ice last night minus two of their top-four defensemen immediately brought back thoughts of Bowden and his philosophy.

During the interview Bowden was asked how his teams were able to reload every year despite losing multiple players to graduation and the NFL draft. He explained his philosophy, and it made perfect sense. Bowden said that every year he made sure his younger players got a chance to play meaningful minutes right from the start of the season.

To Bowden, “meaningful minutes” meant that he went out of his way to get his less-experienced backup players into games when the outcome was still in doubt, not when it was 56-0 in the fourth quarter and he was calling nothing but running plays. This didn’t mean that he’d throw a youngster into a tight game in the waning minutes, but it did mean that he would rest his starters at times and give the less-experienced players a chance to play maybe early in the second quarter of a contest that was still close.

This philosophy helped Bowden’s teams in multiple ways:

  • In football, a sport in which frequent injuries mean you often turn to the “next man up,” Bowden’s next men up were game-tested and accustomed to playing high-level college football at top speed.
  • Sometimes a diamond in the rough would emerge and prove to be even better than some of the starters – something that many coaches don’t find out until it’s too late to make a difference.
  • Once players departed the program for the NFL or because of graduation Bowden wasn’t replacing them the next year with green rookies. Instead his program maintained its high level of play and prominent national status on a yearly basis.
  • He was able to get top recruits to attend Florida State every year because they knew they would get a chance to prove themselves and play at least somewhat of a meaningful role almost immediately.

Seizing the Opportunity

As the Capitals enter the meat of their December schedule, which includes seven games in the next 12 days, three consecutive road games and seven of the month’s remaining 11 contests away from Verizon Center, they find themselves with an opportunity adopt Bowden’s philosophy thanks to injuries on their blue line.

The difference, of course, is that as Bowden’s program became more established he knew that the caliber of athletes and football players he was bringing in would allow them to be competitive against pretty much anyone despite their inexperience. Washington head coach Barry Trotz is paid to win games while competing against the top professional hockey players in the world, so it’s a bit of a riskier proposition to just throw inexperienced players into the fire.

But thanks to his team’s fast start – the Caps have reached the 19-win plateau earlier than any team in franchise history – Trotz is in the enviable position of not having to stress out over every standings point. So, with one of his top-pairing defensemen out for the past month and two of his top-four defensemen potentially down going into Tuesday’s victory against Detroit, there exists a tremendous growth opportunity for his younger defensemen.

“Everybody wants an opportunity,” Trotz told reporters recently. “It’s what you do with that opportunity. Some guys are really taking advantage of the opportunity. You’ve got to elevate your game, and if you don’t, when people get back you get moved down.”

Nate Schmidt has risen to the occasion since getting more ice time. (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

Nate Schmidt has risen to the occasion since getting more ice time. (Tom Turk/The Hockey Writers)

An injury to Brooks Orpik in early November vaulted Nate Schmidt, who had been alternating as the team’s sixth or seventh d-man, up to the first defensive pairing alongside of John Carlson, who is hearing whispers of being a potential Norris Trophy candidate.

Schmidt has flourished in that role for the past 13 contests, posting a plus-3 rating and three points while seeing his average ice time balloon from 15 or 16 minutes a game to better than 20 per contest over the last seven outings. Twice during that span Schmidt has seen more than 23 minutes, and he’s averaged 22 minutes the past two games. Schmidt’s role on the penalty kill has increased of late, and some analytics suggest he’s been as effective – or even more effective – than Orpik and Carlson at times in man-down situations.

Likewise, future star Dmitry Orlov has settled down and played with more confidence – and gotten more consistent results – since Orpik’s departure. Skating alongside offseason acquisition Taylor Chorney as part of the team’s third pairing, Orlov’s minutes haven’t increased as much as Schmidt’s, but his role as an offensive catalyst has been cemented.

Since Orpik’s injury Orlov has recorded 3-2-5 offensively to go along with a plus-1 rating while playing between 12 and 17 minutes a night. At one point he scored a goal in three straight contests, including two game-winners, and he has received an occasional opportunity to man the point on the power play.

Chorney came to D.C. from Pittsburgh with the reputation of being a steady depth defenseman who would make good decisions and not hurt his team in its own end. When Schmidt struggled early, Chorney was inserted as the sixth d-man alongside Orlov and proved to be exactly as advertised. He bounced in and out of the lineup after that until Orpik went down, but also has been solid in his absence.

In 12 games since moving into the lineup full time Chorney is a plus-1 (at one point he was plus-4) while seeing the ice about 13 minutes per contest. As a more conservative defender he’s a great fit to play with Orlov, who has the ability to skate the puck into the offensive zone or join the rush on an odd-man opportunity.

Can’t Argue With the Capitals’ Results

The most impressive thing about the team’s performance with three less-experienced defensemen in the lineup has been its record. Washington is 10-2-1 in that span and a league best 8-1-1 in its last 10 outings. The better that the team performs with youngsters in the lineup the more confident Trotz will be inserting other less-experienced players into the mix as injury replacements or just to give key players a rest during the long grind that is the NHL season.

“The three younger guys – Schmidt, Chorney and Orlov – have all risen their game, so you do have a better comfort with them,” Trotz said recently. “And when you’re winning more than you’re losing that helps build the comfort level with them as well.”

Promising forward Stanislav Galiev also has seen action in three games recently and generally has held his own. And the newest addition to the roster, called up when top-four defenseman Karl Alzner recently suffered what has been called an upper-body injury, is 25-year old Aaaron Ness.

Ness, a former second-round draft pick of the Islanders and a college teammate of Schmidt’s, did not dress last night as Alzner’s 400-plus-game consecutive-games streak remained intact. But you can bet that given the recent success of Schmidt, Chorney and Orlov he would have been prepared had his number been called.

“It’s kind of a next-man-up mentality,” Schmidt told The Washington Post. “We have a a lot of really good depth, and I think we have a lot of guys who can play and contribute on this team and eat up minutes. Karl is a big {penalty-kill} guy, and I just think that adds an extra opportunity for Chorney and for myself to show what we could do in those situations.”

Added Trotz after a recent game: “We miss {Orpik}, but it’s a good time to develop guys and see what you really have. Guys want opportunities, and the opportunity is there and they’re earning more minutes. We’re not in a panic and wondering who we can call up from Hershey or who can do better.”

Another legendary coach, Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame-manager Earl Weaver, once spoke of his club having “deep depth.” Some teams have it and don’t know it. The Washington Capitals have found out that, at least on the blue line, they do. The success of the players who have stepped in on defense also should provide more opportunities for other young players to show what they can do in the near future and allow for the organization to find out just how deep that depth really goes.


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