How are the Caps prospects affected by the Orpik/Niskanen deals?

With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen signed, the Caps’ defense looks set for opening night. The Caps now have six NHL-caliber defensemen to defend their blueline, in addition to Orpik and Niskanen: Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green, and Dmitry Orlov. There are no gaping holes, and the only real question surrounding the defense is how the pairings will be constructed.

This obviously shakes up the depth chart and leaves little room for call-ups, so prospects will likely have to bide their time in Hershey. This isn’t a terrible fate. Spending extra time in the AHL is beneficial, unlike playing unwarranted minutes in the NHL. But injuries and other unforeseen circumstances are inevitable, so defensemen will inevitably be called up.

At present, the defense is perfectly balanced with an equal amount of right- and left-handed shots. Barry Trotz will hopefully base call-ups on overall fit instead of shooting sides, like Adam Oates did. This article will focus on the three prospects I believe are most likely to see NHL time this season, and what the Caps’ latest transactions mean for their development.

 

Connor Carrick

This time last year, Carrick was unsure if he’d be playing in the OHL or the AHL. Yet he unexpectedly cracked the opening-night roster and wound up playing 34 games in the NHL. Had the Caps been in a better place defensively, he probably wouldn’t have seen that much ice time.

As the season dragged on, Carrick looked increasingly out of place in his own zone. This concern was made worse as he got outmuscled–the opposition would take advantage of his size and use physicality to outplay him.

With the above in mind, it’s easy to forget that Carrick’s skating ability and vision are among the best of all Caps prospects. However, he doesn’t fit the mold of a bruising, shutdown defenseman–the type of player the Caps lack. The Caps have an abundance of offensive-minded defensemen in their system, so it’s hard not to wonder where Carrick fits into the equation.

Hockey’s Future is almost dismissive of Carrick’s defensive ability:

You won’t really be investing in Carrick for his defensive play. He’s competent in his own zone, but what you are looking for from him is a powerplay quarterback and an aggressive and explosive offensive defenseman.

Finding someone to play point isn’t a problem for the Caps, as they already have three viable options in Carlson, Green, and Niskanen. While Green’s role with the Caps is hazy, Carlson and Niskanen will be defensive cornerstones for years to come. Future projections shouldn’t stop Carrick from seeing some NHL minutes, though. Spending the majority of the upcoming season in Hershey will allow him to develop further, and his previous NHL experience makes him an appealing call-up possibility. Furthermore, the Caps have a plethora of quality partners available for him to skate with. Playing Carrick alongside a physical, defensive defenseman not named John Erskine would be ideal. Orpik is an obvious candidate, should Carrick be needed in D.C.

Carrick’s hockey sense might be more refined than that of his peers, but I wouldn’t pin him as a go-to call-up. Others are sounder defensively, and the Caps aren’t in desperate need of an offensive-minded blueliner. After all, if one of the core defensemen is out of action, they’re going to want someone who prioritizes defense, instead of stepping up in the offensive zone. Unless Carrick makes tremendous strides and the Caps lose an offensive-minded blueliner, he’ll likely be passed over.

 

Nate Schmidt

Schmidt recently signed a two-way, one-year contract with the Caps after seeing a decent chunk of action (29 games) in the NHL. His season was unfortunately cut short due to a knee injury, but his time with the Caps gave viewers plenty to think about. As an offensive defenseman, he scored 6 points (2G, 4A) and was a plus-four (if you’re into that sort of thing) while suiting up for the Caps.

Point totals aside, Schmidt posted impressive possession numbers. His Corsi-for came in at 50.6%, while his relative Corsi was 3.1%. Despite these numbers, he received little ice time and didn’t see NHL action after late January.

Like Carrick, Schmidt is known for his offense first and defense second. Sound familiar? While Schmidt is a promising defender, the Caps have unfortunately stockpiled too many blueliners in this mold: young and offensively-inclined, with no guarantee of making it to the NHL. (Granted, there’s never any certainty in that department.)

I’d love to see Schmidt get power-play minutes with the Caps, but think about it–with Green, Niskanen, and Carlson already established, what are the odds the Caps would take a chance on him? Were Schmidt a potent penalty-killer in Hershey, he’d be more valuable to the big club. After all, there’s nothing he can do that the Caps’ current blueliners can’t. However, Schmidt now has more partner options, should he be called up. Schmidt was frequently paired with Green last season, and the two saw tremendous success in terms of possession. Skating with Niskanen, a similar type of defender, might yield comparable results.

In regards to the future, the brevity of Schmidt’s new contract is concerning. The Caps’ overabundance of offensive defensemen doesn’t help Schmidt’s NHL chances, and I have to wonder if they intend to focus on other prospects and let Schmidt walk if he doesn’t have a breakthrough season of sorts. Of course, he’s only 22, and defensemen typically develop at a slower rate than forwards. The upcoming season will be pivotal for Schmidt, who’s the most likely candidate for a recall. Hopefully he’ll escape the Caps’ logjam of young defenders and earn some NHL minutes.

 

Patrick Wey

Wey’s first pro season was eventful, as he saw time in the ECHL, AHL, and NHL. His promotion to the AHL demonstrated the depth of his development, and he finished his season in Hershey with 6 points (1G, 5A) in 28 games played. Wey has always racked up penalty minutes, and this season was no exception–he took 26 penalties. The physical component of Wey’s game sets him apart from Carrick and Schmidt, as does his commitment to defense.

However, Wey’s style of play doesn’t set him up for much NHL action this season–if any. I believe he’s the least likely of the three to make the team, much less be called up. Hockey’s Future does a great job of summing up Wey and what he brings to the Caps:

Wey is another of several puck-moving defense prospects in the Capitals’ system. Long-term, he projects as a sound, two-way defenseman who can generate offense off the rush.

I don’t mean to discredit Wey, but his play doesn’t address any pressing needs the Caps might have on the blueline. While we haven’t seen Orpik and Niskanen in action, it’s hard to imagine a scenario at this point in time where Wey’s skills would be desperately needed. He’s a puck-mover like Carrick and Schmidt, so he will have to bring something unique to the table if he wants a good look from the Caps.

Way has been assessed as a two-way defender in the making, but logging serious penalty kill minutes will increase his chances of a call-up. It’s difficult to predict how he’ll mesh with the Caps’ current blueliners, but the preseason will allow for mixing and matching to take place. With the Caps’ current lineup and one year remaining on Wey’s deal, it’s unlikely that he’ll be rushed into playing in the NHL.

About Margaret Stuart

Maryland native and Caps blogger. Twitter: @mpstuart16

Posted on July 21, 2014, in NHL, Washington Capitals and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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