NEW YORK -- As much as Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz would like to get defenseman Brooks Orpik healthy and in the lineup, discovering more about Nate Schmidt and his versatile game has been a positive that should continue to matter when the blue line is whole.
Orpik's lower-body injury, which has kept him out of the lineup since Nov. 12, has given Schmidt a chance to play on the Capitals' first pair with John Carlson. He had been a regular on the third pair with Dmitry Orlov.
Schmidt has eclipsed the 20-minute mark in 10 of the past 18 games after averaging 14:39 of ice time in his first nine games. He was a healthy scratch in five of the first eight games.
"We're missing Brooks Orpik, who is a real big piece to what we do, but the blessing of the whole thing is you get to find out about a Nate Schmidt," Trotz said. "He gets elevated and has done a really good job. He's almost the total opposite of what Orpik is. He's a smaller skater, a transporter. He can get up in the play, transport the puck, do a lot of different things. Brooks is more of a physical defenseman who can rattle some teeth and is a real strong defender. Nate defends more with quickness and mobility than physicality. You get an opportunity to elevate a young guy like that, it really sets you up for later when you get Brooks back."
It does, Trotz said, because it's giving Schmidt confidence in his ability to play bigger minutes against better competition. He's now regularly playing against first and second lines, whereas before he was playing mostly against third and fourth lines.
Schmidt will likely go back to playing a third-pair role whenever Orpik returns (there is no timetable at this point).
"When you get elevated from a third pairing to a first pairing you come out real quick, but those minutes start eating away at you and grinding," Trotz said. "You get the confidence but you're not used to playing those hard, hard minutes. It's a more mental thing than a physical thing because you get away with it more against the third and fourth lines than you do against the first and second lines. But we use Nate against some of the best skaters in the League and he's done really well."
Trotz, though, pointed out that Schmidt's polar opposite style from Orpik has had an effect on Carlson. He's had to make subtle changes in his game to adapt to playing with a partner who can get up the ice and move the puck the same way he does.
The results have, for the most part, been good, even though Carlson has been on the ice for more even strength shot attempts in the 18 games he's played with Schmidt (minus-36) than he was in the 14 games he played with Orpik (even), according to war-on-ice.com.
Carlson has eight even strength points in 18 games playing with Schmidt; he had five points in 14 games with Orpik. He is fifth among all defensemen with 26 points, including 12 on the power play.
"Carly [Carlson] was a little bit of the student with Brooks. Brooks is the reliable veteran guy and if things got hairy he would default to that," Trotz said. "Now, Carly has to be a little bit of the teacher, the guy helping the young guy along. That's good growth for him. Brooks is a guy who moves it over to Carly and Carly transports it and joins the rush. Schmidt can also do that so they've gotta read off of each other. You see them both cycling and diving through offensively, but having two of those guys that do that on a regular basis, they have to be aware of who is going. Once in a while they both end up jumping in at the same time, but we've been fortunate."