Nate Schmidt spent the previous four seasons playing for the Washington Capitals, and he personally experienced the heartbreak of their recent playoff disappointments. The defenseman understands why many people thought this talented, experienced team might never win a championship.
Schmidt and his many good friends with the Caps are finally in the Stanley Cup Final this week. Only they’re on opposite benches after the Vegas Golden Knights grabbed Schmidt in the expansion draft and wouldn’t give him back.
Schmidt was Washington’s sixth defenseman last season, but he now leads the Golden Knights in ice time. The improbable matchup in Monday night’s series opener puts a bewildered grin on Schmidt’s face.
”Yeah, I don’t think you could have written this up any better for me,” he said Sunday.
Both of his franchises are in the midst of banner years, and Schmidt won’t argue with the idea that he deserves a small part of the credit.
Or maybe the blame.
”I really enjoyed my time in Washington,” Schmidt said. ”I thought that team was special, and we still had a good chance to go and do something, and here they are, proving it.”
Schmidt stops himself as another grin invades his serious interview session.
”I must have been the reason why!” he said. ”I must have been the problem.”
Not likely. Schmidt’s irrepressible personality and two-way acumen have made him one of the Golden Knights’ most valuable players during their improbable inaugural season.
He surpassed his previous career highs with five goals and 31 assists while doing steady work on the back end. Given extensive responsibilities in Vegas after playing a smaller role in Washington, Schmidt has taken a major step forward.
”The perception of your game could be remodeled and redone, and I think that’s the coolest part of what we’ve been able to do here in Vegas,” Schmidt said. ”You have guys that have been able to revamp their image or revamp their style, and for other guys to grow into the players that people may not have thought they could be.”
Schmidt might have had this success in Washington if he had stuck around. He had begun to assert himself in a pairing with John Carlson, the Caps’ No. 1 defenseman.
”We were playing together last season, and that’s probably how it would have started out again this season,” said Carlson, who led all NHL blueliners this season with 68 points. ”So there’s a little disappointment from that, but obviously he’s done really well for himself. That’s no surprise. I wish him all the best, but not for these next two weeks.”
Schmidt has been particularly effective in the playoffs. Partnered with former Kings defenseman Brayden McNabb in the Knights’ top pairing, Schmidt has provided energy, timely scoring and strong back-end play while Vegas roared past Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg with just three losses.
Schmidt knows more about the Caps than his teammates, so he realizes the enormity of their task. He’ll lead the Golden Knights’ efforts to minimize Alex Ovechkin’s time and space with the puck.
”He’s a beast,” Schmidt said. ”I played against him in practice for a long time, so hopefully I know a few tendencies of his. But in reality, he’s a player that can shoot the puck from anywhere.”
Schmidt’s unusual perspective on this series is matched only by Vegas general manager George McPhee. Before the Caps fired him in 2014, McPhee acquired many of the players on Washington’s roster – including Schmidt, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota, in 2013.
McPhee acquired him again last summer for Vegas, but Washington general manager Brian MacLellan tried hard to keep him with a post-draft trade. If anybody could have made a deal, it’s these two men, who have known each other for 44 years since their bantam playing days in Guelph, Ontario, followed by college careers at Bowling Green and several years together in Washington’s front office.
Not even a childhood friendship could keep Schmidt away from his new destiny in Vegas.
”We made our selection, and then he called and asked if there’s any way we could do a deal for him to get Schmidt back,” McPhee recalled. ”And I said, `I don’t see anything, but we’ll try to come up with something to give you a chance to say no.’ We made a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work. Our guys liked Schmidt.”
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