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Nate Schmidt proving to be worth the gamble for Vegas

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Vegas’ No. 88 has risen from sheltered No. 6 defenseman in Washington to Western Conference Champion workhorse.

Winnipeg Jets v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Four Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Nate Schmidt is rarely found without a smile on his face. And after his Vegas Golden Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in quick succession — just 15 games overall — who can blame him?

The 26-year-old blueliner may face his former team in the finals next week, and it is truly special to have watched his growth over the past year.

Consider this; in the 2016-17 season, Schmidt averaged just 15:29 of ice time per game, which put him on the very low end of defensemen who played in at least 50 games (160th of 170 d-men, to be exact). This year, he led the Knights with nearly seven more minutes of ice time per game, and far more shifts in the defensive zone.

A Tale of Two Seasons (and Playoffs)

Season Team dZS% Avg. TOI
Season Team dZS% Avg. TOI
2016-17 Season WSH 40.8% 15:29
2016-17 Playoffs WSH 27.4% 16:39
2017-18 Season VGK 53.0% 22:14
2017-18 Playoffs VGK 59.9% 24:53
(dZS% = Defensive Zone Start %) Data from Hockey Reference

Further, he was quite often on the ice against a team’s top line:

Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz

But that’s the regular season. Sports are the perfect venue for, “what have you done for me lately?” and Schmidt, more than perhaps any other Knight, has been truly excellent as of late.

His performances in the series against the San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets were quite impressive, and they showcased his ability to neutralize, or at least slow, a high-octane offense.

Oftentimes, merely playing against elite competition frequently earns one the title of a “shutdown defender.” We see this with the penalty kill—countless players are considered great PK’ers simply because the coach has chosen to deploy them in those instances, rather than their actual ability there (see: Tom Kuhnhackl, Pittsburgh Penguins).

This is not the case for Schmidt, however, as he rebounded from a so-so showing against the Los Angeles Kings’ top line, which featured Hart Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar, to be arguably his team’s only hope (alongside his partner Brayden McNabb, that is) against the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski line and the Jets’ Mark Scheifele/Blake Wheeler juggernaut.

Schmidt vs. Top Opponent Centers (5v5)

Opposing Center Schmidt TOI Rest of Team TOI Schmidt CF% Rest of Team CF% Schmidt SCF% Rest of Team SCF%
Opposing Center Schmidt TOI Rest of Team TOI Schmidt CF% Rest of Team CF% Schmidt SCF% Rest of Team SCF%
Joe Pavelski 64:16 28:52 53.49% 30.77% 55.74% 23.53%
Mark Scheifele 60:00 17:31 49.09% 33.33% 46.15% 37.50%
Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

It’s funny to think that Schmidt and McNabb’s combined salaries ($3.925MM) this year could pay for about half of a Drew Doughty ($7MM), Brent Burns ($8MM) or Dustin Byfuglien ($7.6MM), and neither of the Vegas pair are on rookie deals. They’re also not out on the golf course at this point of the year, which cannot be said about the other defensemen listed.

Regardless of whether the Golden Knights are to square off against the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals, one thing is for sure; Nate Schmidt has his work cut out for him.

And he’ll be grinning the whole time.