61°F
weather icon Clear

Golden Knights’ Nate Schmidt returns with rust but promise

It has the traits of a Netflix drama, perhaps not as deep as why Hannah Baker left those 13 tapes behind but meaningful just the same.

“Surviving Without Nate.”

The first season resulted in 20 below-average episodes.

This one lasted 13 fairly decent ones.

Even so, the Golden Knights would prefer immediate cancellation.

Mark Stone is the team’s best player and Marc-Andre Fleury its most important, but any value meter worth its ranking would list Nate Schmidt next in order of significance.

His usefulness for a side that lost to the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena is as praised internally for his presence off the ice as on, the team’s best defenseman who when healthy has this distinctive ability to allow for a less stressed, disjointed unit.

“He plays everything — power play, penalty kill, always matched against the other team’s top line,” said Fleury, who allowed the five goals on 30 shots. “I think the guys did a good job stepping up and playing more minutes and different roles than they’re used to …”

But?

“But it’s good to have him back.”

Went down in 1st game

Schmidt returned after going down five shifts into the season when his knee collided with that of San Jose captain Logan Couture.

Schmidt appeared as if he was trying to find himself much of the game Thursday, playing 20:20 and yet taking a bad holding penalty in the third period.

Montreal scored just as the minor ended to cut the Vegas lead to 4-3 at 13:33.

The Knights aren’t good enough defensively to commit such critical mistakes.

The idea is that they will be once Schmidt, who played to a minus-2 over 26 shifts, returns to form.

He also missed the first 20 games last season, the Knights going 8-11-1 while he served a suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substances program. They were 8-5 without him this time — Schmidt played 3:01 of the opener — and yet even a winning record couldn’t disguise how badly he’s needed.

Knights coach Gerard Gallant has remarked often that Schmidt’s presence allows for everyone to play their proper roles, meaning both where specific skills fit and also avoiding players being put in undesirable spots.

Schmidt was back on the top defensive line Thursday with Brayden McNabb, which would suggest things will suddenly become stronger when standing folks up at the blue line and tougher on zone entries.

Consider: From the time Schmidt returned to the lineup Nov. 18 to last season’s end, the Knights allowed 30.11 shots per game. Through 13 games this season, they had allowed 32.7 (10th worst in the NHL).

Also, his 55.88 goals-for percentage was third on the team in 2018-19 behind third-pair defensemen Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt, impressive given the usual list of All-Star players Schmidt faces nightly from opposing top lines.

There also should be more of this now: At 19:36 of the first period Thursday, Schmidt sent a long pass off the wall that Alex Tuch tracked down on the left wing to score in his season debut.

Showed some rust

The Knights are so much better when Schmidt is at his finest — better creating plays, better advancing the puck, better transitioning from one end to the next. He’s just not there yet.

“I think they understand the importance of the silence factor when I’m gone,” Schmidt said jokingly of his lost locker room presence while injured. “Lot of wasted air. I think when you’re missing any of your (regulars), you lose a little continuity and chemistry. It’s easy to play armchair guy watching. Mostly, you’re frustrated. The hardest thing in the world is to sit and watch and not be able to contribute.

“I thought (the injury) was much worse when it happened. I had a lot of bad thoughts in my head, like ‘(being out until) next season’ thoughts. Thankfully, it was not. Huge plus. Big blessing.”

For him, the second most important player wearing a Knights sweater.

For the Knights, who would be just fine without again offering a season of any “Surviving Without Nate” episodes.

Schmidt is back. He showed some rust Thursday.

Once it wears off, Gallant’s team will be stronger for it.

More Golden Knights: Follow at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

Don't miss the latest VGK news. Like our Golden Edge page
THE LATEST
Raiders struggling against elite quarterbacks

Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson have combined to complete 82 of 114 passes for 1,151 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions against the Raiders.