- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2016

At the cusp of his fourth professional season of hockey, Washington Capitals’ defenseman Nate Schmidt has been asked to develop a new wrinkle to his game.

This season, Schmidt has begun to jump into the offensive zone, facilitating the flow and cheating up deeper and deeper into the zone — a mid-career adjustment that likely will take some time to develop.

Schmidt, who grew up playing hockey in Minnesota, said he jumped up offensively when as a teenager in high school. But, as he got older and the game got faster with more and more skill guys added to the mix, that offensive defenseman role became difficult to maintain. 

“You know, once you get in junior and college, it’s harder to pick your spots,” Schmidt said. “Guys are so much better. Periodically throughout my career, I’ve had those times where you kind of have to adapt your role, find out where you belong and in the first couple years here, that wasn’t my role. So now it’s kind of trying to get back to where we feel like we can get a little more offense from our ‘d,’ and that’s what the staff kind of wants from me.”

It’s not an easy transition for anyone. Schmidt acknowledges even the best offensive defensemen in the NHL struggle to kind the perfect balance between picking and choosing when to jump into the offensive zone and when to sit back and play the smart defensive play. It’ll take time for Schmidt to know when exactly to make that jump and when to sit back.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has seen Schmidt play comfortably in the offensive zone and he believes that with each game, Schmidt will produce more offense.

“He gets up in the play and he really supports the attack,” Trotz said. “He gets some really good looks. Probably the next level for Nate is to cash in on a lot of those looks. And I think as he continues to get more experience, more minutes, all those things, that part will come.”

“He’s come a long way in a lot of those areas. But just some production on the backend offensively is probably where he’s going to add to his toolbox as a player.”

Schmidt had a couple of impressive offensive seasons during his junior and senior years at the University of Minnesota. In those respective seasons, Schmidt had 41 points in 43 games and followed that effort with a 32-point campaign in 40 games. Schmidt even noted that in his final few games as a member of the Hershey Bears in the AHL, he began to get a better understanding of the flow of the game and he knew when to pick and choose the times to join the game offensively.

He’s just beginning to develop that same understanding in the NHL, and it helps that his primary defensive partner, Brooks Orpik, is exclusively a “stay at home” defenseman. Orpik, who has played with several offensive defenseman in the past, like Capitals’ defenseman John Carlson and former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Kris Letang, knows exactly how to offer support to a more offensive minded player.

“With Brooksie, you know what you’re going to get out of him,” Schmidt said. “That makes it really easy, having that concrete pillar. You know where he’s going to be, you know what he brings to the table. So that makes it a lot easier to play like [I want to], kind of go out there and wheel and deal a bit more and try to jump into the offense without having to worry, ‘Is somebody else going to jump in with me?’ He’s been great.”

Adding this element to Schmidt’s game will take some time, but he is taking all of the right steps.

Schmidt recognizes that joining his forwards as a fourth threat in the offensive zone gives teammates a better chance to score.

“Adding another dimension to your skill set always helps,” Schmidt said. “I think it’s been helping our guys out, moving your feet a little bit more, creating space for other guys, I mean, guys will tell you they love when the ‘d’ wheel the puck. It makes it easier on everybody, so that’s kind of where my mindset is right now.”

• Tommy Chalk can be reached at tchalk@washingtontimes.com.

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