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Evaluating Nate Schmidt’s return to the Golden Knights’ lineup

Vegas’ top defenseman returned after his 20-game suspension, paired with Shea Theodore.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights played their 21st game of the season Sunday night. And for the first time, they were accompanied by one of the most important players on the roster — defenseman Nate Schmidt.

Schmidt was suspended for the first 20 games of the Golden Knights’ sophomore campaign for violating the NHL’s Performance Enhancing Substances Program. In Vegas’ 20 games without Schmidt, the Knights managed a record of 8-11-1, ranking them seventh in the Pacific Division.

However, with Schmidt back in the lineup, Vegas managed to replicate the dominant play exhibited in its inaugural season. And his presence alone had a lot to do with the Knights picking up a valuable pair of points on the road against the Edmonton Oilers.

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Schmidt in his first NHL game since Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Early on, he showed some rust, particularly when he allowed an odd-man rush after biting a little too hard at the Oilers’ blue line. Had the would-be shooter been anyone other than Zack Kassian, this may have resulted in a goal. Luckily, though, the quality scoring opportunity turned out to be uneventful.

A little later on, Schmidt made up for the blemish by disrupting a play that could have culminated in another quality scoring opportunity for Edmonton. With all-world forward Connor McDavid surveying the offensive zone for an open man, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner found superstar linemate Leon Draisaitl readying to receive a pass near the adjacent faceoff circle. Perfectly positioned between McDavid and Draisaitl, though, Schmidt managed to disrupt the pass with his stick, sending the puck back to the blue line.

Schmidt was held off the scoresheet in his first game, but that’s not to say he was ineffective offensively. He made the biggest impact of any Golden Knights skater in terms of play-driving efficiency (though it is important to consider that the overwhelming majority of his faceoffs were taken in the offensive zone). His 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of 78.13 was the highest of any player on the ice Sunday night, and had it not been for an excellent backcheck from Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Schmidt could have earned his first point.

After recovering a loose puck in the defensive zone, Schmidt took advantage of the extra space (thanks to matching minors to McDavid and Max Pacioretty), raced through center ice and into the Edmonton end to attempt a shot on Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot. Just as Schmidt was getting ready to release the shot, though, Nugent-Hopkins disrupted the play with his stick, forcing Schmidt to recover the puck and reorganize behind the net.

Individually, Schmidt was nothing short of stellar in his first game of the season, even despite having to shake off a little bit of rust in the early going.

But with his return to the lineup, we were also given our first extensive look at Vegas’ new top defensive pairing of Schmidt and 23-year-old blueliner Shea Theodore.

The results are in, and the approval is overwhelming.

In over 17 minutes of ice time together, Schmidt and Theodore logged a downright superb Corsi For percentage of 77.42 at 5-on-5 play and were on the ice for a ridiculous eight high-danger scoring chances (while allowing just one high-danger chance for Edmonton). And while Schmidt did not register a point on the night, Theodore picked up two — both even-strength assists.

The return of Nate Schmidt alone is enough to make a big difference for the inconsistent Golden Knights. But knowing that he’s coming back to a new defensive partner as dynamic as Theodore is, it’s hard not to be at least a little excited about the potential turnaround of Vegas’ defensive corps.

Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.