Capitals castoff Nate Schmidt has flourished with Golden Knights

Gene Principe caught up with Golden Knights defencemen Nate Schmidt during media day.

LAS VEGAS – Alex Tuch makes his Vegas Golden Knights teammate Nate Schmidt sound like Odie, the irrepressibly joyful cartoon dog, when he imitates his teammate. Eyes wide, tongue out, bobbing his head.

“Every single morning of every day, he comes in like, ‘Hey Tuchy! Hey Tucho! How ya doin’?!’

“‘I’m good, Nate. Just woke up about 15 minutes ago. How ’bout you?’”

Tuch, near yawn when he mimics himself in this scenario, is obviously Garfield in this scene.

“Through and through, he’s the most positive person on this team. Always high energy. Talking. Jumping around. Everything like that,” Tuch says. “He’s a blast to be around. I’m very happy to be his teammate. He’s helped me wake up some mornings. That positive influence, it’s uplifting honestly.”

When Jimmy Fallon saw Schmidt’s headshot — those skyward bangs, those Christmas-morning eyes, that grin so wide it might break his face — the late-night host voted the hockey player “Most Likely to Puke Rainbows When He Opens His Mouth.”

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Naturally, Schmidt, who dishes out compliments and glee as well as he does breakout passes, is savouring every millisecond of this ride, the one where he gets to play the team that didn’t want him for the Stanley Cup.

“I’m going to have a lot of fun with it,” Schmidt says through his perma-grin. “I love it. I can’t wait. It’s going to be great for that. You know Tommy Wilson is going to be flying down the wall sometime. You got to keep your head up. You want to say it’s another game, but it means a lot to this city for us to be here. Who could’ve scripted this at the expansion draft last year?”

About that.

In the summer of the expansion draft, when George McPhee, the GM who signed Schmidt to the Washington Capitals as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota, picked Schmidt to be the caffeinated spark on his brand-new blue line in Vegas, Washington’s defence was getting ravaged.

Not-so-cheap deadline rental Kevin Shattenkirk and stay-at-home fixture Karl Alzner were both going to be lost to free agency, and Schmidt, who’d begun to hint at his value as a dynamic top-four guy in a faster NHL, was going to be left unprotected.

“We were playing together at the end of the season in the [2017] playoffs, especially against Toronto. That’s probably how it would’ve started this season,” says John Carlson, the Capitals’ best defenceman, whose been texting with Schmidt throughout this post-season. “So there was a little disappointment in terms of that. He’s done real well for himself. It’s no surprise with his abilities.

“When anyone leaves a team that you’re great friends with, you’re going to be a little sad.”

Schmidt was coaching a select group of Minnesota’s best 15-year-old defenders when he received the “bittersweet” news that he would be exposed in the Vegas draft by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, who later tried to bargain with McPhee in effort to keep Schmidt in red.

“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, 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,” McPhee recounts.

“So we made a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work because our guys like Schmidt. So we overreached on the ask, and that’s the way it went.”

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Schmidt believes he’d proven himself enough to stick in Washington, but forever seeing the glass half full, he was grateful to reunite with McPhee, the man who gave him his first and second lives in the NHL.

“We could all start over. The perception of your game could be remodelled and redone,” Schmidt says.

“That’s the coolest part of what we’ve been able to do here in Vegas. You have guys who’ve been able to revamp their image or revamp their style. Other guys have grown into the players people may have not thought they could be.”

Frequently healthy-scratched in D.C., Schmidt has been recast as the humming engine of the Golden Knights’ attack and defence. He skates in all situations and leads all Knights in ice time, averaging 24:53 per night this post-season. He more than doubled his previous career high in points, with 36, and Schmidt’s fleet feet seldom put him in a position to take penalties.

“He’s a big dog on that team. He’s logging a lot of minutes. He’s a big X factor for them. I’m sure we’ll go head-to-head at some point and we’ll see what happens,” says Wilson, who shared a room with Schmidt when they were both Caps rookies.

“I’m not going to pass up any hits on him, and he’s going to play me as hard as he can. He’s a fun guy. I’m sure he’s giving you any soundbite you want on any given day. He’s awesome. Hopefully I can make his life difficult in the next two weeks.”

Wilson quips that the only thing Washington lost in the expansion draft was all that yapping in the dressing room. He says this, of course, with love.

A thought crossed Schmidt’s mind when he sat glued to his TV and watched his frenemies trounce the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last week: “I felt like it was meant to be.”

He’s got jokes about the Capitals finally getting over the hump (“I must’ve been the problem”), but on a serious note, Schmidt is able to see the positive ripples of his departure for emerging Washington players like Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson, who would not have been gifted so much ice time had the band stayed together.

“There’s a lot of great defencemen over there. It’s hard to push through on a team like that. I actually kind of feel for some of the younger guys that have been able to make an impact this year,” Schmidt says.

“It takes something to happen for guys to get their chances. You’ve seen guys flourish. You just need a chance. I just needed a chance to hit the next level.”

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