It’s safe to say that defenseman Nate Schmidt has come into his own as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, and his six-year, $35.7-million contract extension means he will likely become one of Vegas’ first franchise players. Let’s take a look at how Schmidt has become a cornerstone of the Golden Knights’ defensive corps.
Schmidt’s Days as a Golden Gopher
After spending three years on his local Minnesota high school’s team, St. Cloud Cathedral, Schmidt stormed into the USHL as a member of the Fargo Force, garnering numerous accolades before heading off to college. Instead of staying local and attending St. Cloud State, Schmidt opted to become a Golden Gopher at the University of Minnesota.
Schmidt got off to a slow start during his first season as a Gopher, earning just one assist in 13 games. His next two seasons were a different story, amassing over 30 points during his sophomore and junior seasons. Schmidt’s efforts earned him All-WCHA honors as well as Second Team All-American as a junior. The Gophers also made consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and it’s worth mentioning that Schmidt’s three years at Minnesota overlapped with fellow Golden Knight, Erik Haula.
After his stunning junior season, Schmidt ended up joining the Washington Capitals as an undrafted free agent.
Schmidt’s Professional Career
Similar to his college career, Schmidt’s NHL career took some time to gather steam. During his first two seasons with the Capitals, Schmidt split time between the Caps and their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. It wasn’t until the 2015-16 season that Schmidt truly emerged as a truly NHL-caliber defenseman.
During the 2015-16 season, Schmidt appeared in 72 games with 16 points as the Capitals cruised to first place in the Eastern Conference and secured the Presidents’ Trophy with 120 points. Unfortunately, the Capitals were eliminated from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, falling victim to the dreaded ‘Presidents’ Trophy curse.’
The Capitals would again claim the Presidents’ Trophy in the 2016-17 season, as Schmidt followed up his breakout season with a 60-game showing and a new career-high in points (17). At this point, the Golden Knights had begun eyeing potential prospects for the 2017 Expansion Draft prior to their inaugural season. It would seem that Schmidt was a prime target for Vegas general manager, George McPhee.
While the Capitals’ playoff run in 2017 was again cut short – Presidents’ Trophy curse, anyone? – the Golden Knights finally acquired Nate Schmidt, agreeing to a two-year, $4.45-million contract.
Vegas Golden Knights
After being demoted by the Capitals from a consistent top-four spot in the defensive rotation, it would appear as though the Golden Knights offered Schmidt a “golden” opportunity to prove himself. And boy, did he capitalize. He quickly established himself as a top defenseman for the Golden Knights, compiling a new career-high in points (36) in the span of 76 games, also a career-high.
Lacking a certain offensive prowess similar to Erik Johnson, or the stay-at-home physical presence of Zdeno Chara, it seems that Schmidt was a prime candidate for the Golden Knights due to his puck-moving ability and what many deemed as “potential.” Potential is a tricky attribute to judge, but over the course of the 2017-18 season, Schmidt definitely played up to that potential. A workhorse during Vegas’ improbable Stanley Cup run during their inaugural season, Schmidt averaged over 22 minutes per game.
Schmidt followed up his standout performance with another solid season during the Golden Knights’ 2018-19 campaign. Over the course of 61 games, he collected 30 points as Vegas marched on to their second straight Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance. The Golden Knights clearly view him as a critical ingredient to sustaining success, as demonstrated by his contract extension.
And with some uncertainty lingering in Vegas, particularly in regards to forward William Karlsson, it’s comforting for the Golden Knights to have secured a reliable presence on defense. While Schmidt may not have the league-renowned reputation of some of his peers, he’s certainly well-regarded in Vegas. And should the Golden Knights continue their unprecedented level of success for a new franchise, it’s logical that Schmidt’s reputation will only attract more attention and respect.
Former Army officer and Army ACHA D2 hockey player.
Husband and father of 3.