It was set up perfect for debate.
In this superstar-driven, salary cap-conscious, advanced-metric era — and a world where there’s no fooling the fans now willing to question conventional wisdom and the values placed on players and specific attributes — the expansion Vegas Golden Knights presented an opportunity for anyone with an opinion to exercise their outlook.
Doors opening to a 31st franchise that would choose talent from each existing team meant that every market and every subset of hockey fandom would be impacted, in turn engaging so many. It originated a million opinions — all of which were different. George McPhee was the envy of any hockey fan that has once questioned the intelligence of an NHL executive.
In the end, after exploring the boundless options at his disposal, McPhee and his team selected a roster that no one could have predicted, many were quick to question, and few imagined could have ever jumped out to the start that it has.
However, he was well in the majority when he spent a selection on smooth-skating defenseman Nate Schmidt from the Washington Capitals. This is a player with something for just about everyone — no matter one’s outlook on the game.
Schmidt is, in many ways, most emblematic of the common element bonding the Vegas room: opportunity. Previously a favorite of the analytics crowd blocked by the top four in Washington that anchored consecutive Presidents’ Trophy wins, Schmidt has leapt into the increased role that so many of his new teammates have found themselves in since arriving in the expansion market.
Within his new top-four function, he’s learning how to tackle major minutes against potent attacking lines and how to apply the active skillset that has been dominant against secondary competition in his previous four NHL seasons.
“You have to be very sharp, every night,” he said in Toronto on Monday, thinking back to his matchups on the club’s east coast road trip. “You can’t take a night off when you’re playing top players. They take advantage of guys that aren’t playing their best.
“That’s been the coolest challenge for me so far — getting used to the new style and role on this team.”
The transition has undoubtedly impacted his shift-to-shift effectiveness.
Schmidt is, for the first time in his career, a negative possession player — and a pretty significant one at that. And for folks that gloss over underlying numbers, those with a closer eye on the organization will point out that his awareness is lagging a little behind his raw toolkit right now.
But after logging a career-high 27 minutes and 11 seconds versus the high-powered Maple Leafs — and looking both dangerous and defensively-sound while handling much of Auston Matthews’ minutes — it’s clear that Schmidt, showing steady progression, was one of the diamonds dug out in the expansion draft.
‘Pull each other up’
What Schmidt offers on the ice now, and what he might be able to develop into down the line, represents just part of his value to the Golden Knights.
In a locker room where drive was initially derived from the disappointment of being left unprotected and the painful process of having to uproot to start fresh with a team not expected to contend any time soon, Schmidt has existed as an endless reservoir of enthusiasm.
He explained that it initially felt like he was “on an island” when he was exposed and promptly chosen. But disappointment was replaced with his distinctly infectious spirit by the time he arrived in Vegas.
“You walk into a room and you know he’s there. Always laughing, smiling, cracking jokes,” said Schmidt’s defense partner Luca Sbisa.
“He makes it fun to come to the rink.”
Schmidt has played a significant role in establishing a culture in a room of misfits, but the discernible fact the Golden Knights are playing for more than just themselves goes beyond the impact of his perma-smile and the unexpected bursts of laughter that often fill the room.
It’s taken a carefully-curated group of athletes to completely buy into the unknown — to play for their coach, their city and one another, first.
“Especially when things are brand new, I think (personalities) are about as important as anything. I don’t want to call it a second chance, but having a first real chance in an expanded role — guys who maybe weren’t in the league are now breaking into the league, guys who were in the league are now elevating their game in a different role. Having good people elevates (everyone). Guys want to fight for each other, (they) want everyone to succeed so we can succeed as a group together.
“With team success comes individual success.”
Again, how much value one places on culture and locker room dynamics is up for debate. But what’s less disputable is the value of engaging personalities in a market aiming to establish permanent roots.
From his effortless edges to his endless energy, Golden Knights fans are beginning to take notice of Schmidt. And while his on-ice recognition may be a work-in-progress, the experience in Vegas so far has given him a firm grasp on the role he and his teammates can play off of it.
“It’s been a blessing. After what happened in Vegas, hockey was something that I think helped bring our community together. We were thrown right into the fabric of the community.
“You had to pull each other up.”
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