The scouting report on Nate Schmidt throughout college and early in his pro career was that the swift-skating defenseman excelled on offense but struggled with the fundamental responsibility of the position.
It’s obvious all these years later they were wrong about Schmidt.
“He’s a player that’s built for today’s game,” Golden Knights general manager George McPhee said. “Very quick, and it’s interesting that he’s sort of the opposite of how he was typecast in prior years.
“Some people thought he was an offensive player who wasn’t very good in his own end, and he’s the opposite. He’s excellent defensively and he does provide some offense.”
Schmidt’s latest lockdown effort came in Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Colorado, when he teamed with Brayden McNabb to contain the Avalanche’s dangerous top line.
As the Knights hit the midpoint of the schedule with game No. 41 against Los Angeles on Saturday at Staples Center, it’s difficult to overstate Schmidt’s influence since he returned from a 20-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
“He’s huge for us,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “You’ve seen the impact he’s made since he’s been back from the suspension. He’s a big part of our group, but he lets the other guys play in their positions.”
Schmidt’s return on Nov. 18 at Edmonton serves as a convenient dividing point for the Knights’ first half.
In the first 20 games without Schmidt, the Knights went 8-11-1 and had a minus-8 goal differential (49 for, 57 against).
They lacked the tempo from their inaugural season, and pucks were too often stalling on defensemen’s sticks instead of moving up ice.
With Schmidt in the lineup, the Knights are 13-4-3 with a plus-14 goal differential (69-55). Their 29 points since Nov. 18 are second in the league behind Tampa Bay (31 points in 18 games).
“I think I injected some energy into our group — and that’s what I bring — and I want to play as fast as I can,” Schmidt said. “I don’t want pucks in my end. I think it forces other guys, (Shea Theodore), (Colin Miller), to play a certain way.
“It all stems from that, I believe. You force guys to play up to what we want to do. That’s how I want to play. That’s how the coaches want us to play. That is our best way of having success is by doing that. We don’t win if we don’t. It’s the straight-up truth.”
Schmidt drew praise during the postseason for his defensive play, highlighted by his effort in the Western Conference Final against Winnipeg.
He signed a six-year, $35.7 million contract extension in October while serving his suspension.
Schmidt, a former University of Minnesota standout, has 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 20 games after posting 36 points in 76 games last season. His previous career high in points was 17.
“He’s a huge part of our team obviously,” Theodore said. “He brings that energy, and he brings his game on the ice that really suits our team’s style of play. He’s a great shut-down guy.”
Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, the NHL’s leading scorer entering Thursday, and linemate Nathan MacKinnon each picked up an assist on the Avalanche’s first-period power-play goal.
But Schmidt helped hold Rantanen, MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog to eight shots on goal during 5-on-5 play. A day later, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar broke up that unit during practice for the first time in more than a year.
“I didn’t understand what my game was when I first came to the NHL,” Schmidt said. “For me, all of a sudden I kind of fell into my how to play this role of my kind of game.
“I got to play with John Carlson a little bit when I was in Washington and it kind of forced me to be that puck-mover, get it to him, move pucks quicker, play-hard-defensively-otherwise-you-weren’t-going-to-play type of role. I’ve kind of been morphing that over into what I am now.”