Assessing how the Vegas Golden Knights have gone from standings bottomfeeders to the top of the Western Conference in two months seems simple – it’s Nate Schmidt.
The Golden Knights are 16-4-3 in their past 23 games since Schmidt concluded his 20-game suspension for violating the NHL/NHLPA’s Performance Enhancing Substances Program on Nov. 16
The Golden Knights have reverted back to their MO of what’s made them dangerous – playing fast at both ends of the ice and putting pressure on the other team, where Schmidt uses the bulk of his energy.
Here’s what I love about Schmidt (outside of his hockey ability): He gives you answers that make you think on the simplest of questions, such as, “What’s changed for the team since you’ve come back?”
“You see teams that jump on the rush and move up the ice quick, it’s hard when you’re a defenseman moving up the ice and gap up, and the puck’s coming back at you,” Schmidt said. “It’s hard to get your gaps to keep yourself going, and then all forwards are skating on the puck with a little more speed. It puts a lot more pressure on the other team.”
Pressure. That’s the key word. Schmidt takes pride in his zone. That’s why he’s always lining up against the likes of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon. Making life tough on the opposing players seems simple, but it was missing from Vegas in the first 20 games.
The Golden Knights went 8-11-1 without Schmidt, who led Vegas defensemen in ice time last season (22:14) and was second among defenseman in points (36) behind Colin Miller (41).
Vegas was second-to-last in the West with 17 points before Schmidt returned, and is now tied with the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division with 52 points. Calgary has three games in hand.
Schmidt leads Vegas skaters in ice time (22:13) and has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in those 23 games. He set a career-high in points last season with 36 (five goals, 31 assists) in 76 games, and is on pace to break that mark with 38 points in 20 fewer games.
“I think one of the things is, you look at where our team is and what our makeup is, and you have guys that excel in certain positions,” Schmidt said. “What I bring to the table with our group of D and what it means to our group is that, yes, I know I can go out and play against top lines and do my job.”
That’s where Vegas missed Schmidt the most – doing his job. The Golden Knights allowed 2.7 goals in the first 20 games, but have allowed 2.48 goals in the past 23 for a season average of 2.65; tied with the Dallas Stars for fourth fewest in the NHL.
The Golden Knights have scored 3.52 goals per game since Nov. 16 while playing the most games out of any team in Stanley Cup Playoff contention.
Schmidt’s two-way ability also makes this possible; he’s the primary defenseman on the Golden Knights’ second power play unit. Schmidt scored the game-winning goal in Vegas’ 5-3 win against the Washington Capitals, his former team, on Dec. 4 in a Stanley Cup Final rematch.
“I always talk about our D and I think, personally, we drive our team outside of our goaltending. We dictate how our forwards play,” Schmidt said. “Since we’ve simplified things down a little more and understand what our MO is, our job is not to just control the game. Our job is to facilitate and be a part of it, and jumpstart it.”
Schmidt gave a perfect example of this; playing with the Washington Capitals paired with John Carlson. They weren’t assigned to another team’s top line; their job was to join the rush, push the puck up and initiate the offense while not worrying so much about the backend.
“The difference in the game has shifted a little bit for me,” he said. “My job is to keep the other team’s top lines off the scoreboard, provide offense when you can and begin a part of a group that tries to move the puck up.”
Schmidt’s absence was also a blow to the Vegas locker room – his boisterous personality and witty chatter just didn’t provide such a jolt to a team that was three games under .500 at the time.
I mean, the man was the official Christmas song DJ on the Golden Knights. That counts for something.
“He’s our best defenseman,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “He brings life on and off the ice and he’s been huge for us all year. Ever since he came back, we’ve been winning more. We feel lucky to have him on our side.”
The Golden Knights have played more games than anyone else in the NHL, yet came away from December playing four back-to-backs and finishing 9-2-3. Schmidt is a large part of why Vegas has crawled from obscurity to be where it is now.
“We love him off the ice,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “On the ice, he plays a lot of minutes. He plays against the best line, the power play, the penalty kill. Off the ice, he’s always positive, talking … he talks a lot.”
In a good way?
“Eh, sometimes,” a laughing Fleury said.
As long as the Golden Knights are winning, I’m sure he won’t mind Schmidt talking a bit here and there.