Nate Schmidt feared the worst.
The moment he banged knees with San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture, the Vegas Golden Knights defenseman went into panic mode. He was helped off the ice by Tomas Nosek and William Carrier, unable to put weight on his left leg.
Schmidt returned to practice Monday and is expected to take his place back in the Golden Knights’ lineup Thursday when Vegas hosts the Montreal Canadiens. It’ll be a welcomed addition to a Vegas team that won eight of the first 13 games to start the season; much better than winning only eight of the 20 Schmidt missed last season for the PED suspension.
“I had a lot of bad thoughts in my head. They were ‘next season’ type of thoughts in my head, just because of the way it was, the way it felt,” Schmidt said. “Thankfully it wasn’t that. These last couple of weeks have been hard.”
The 12 games Schmidt missed is different this go-round than 2018 for obvious reasons; one being he didn’t have to wake up at 4 a.m. while training in Austria to check the scores. Vegas is also in a much better situation record-wise.
“Less than 20 [games] this year, which is nice,” he said. “It was good. I think the first couple of days were hard because I wanted to be back in the worst way. The body sometimes, you’ve just got to listen to it especially early in the year.”
The Golden Knights are part of a clustered conglomerate in the Pacific Division where 75 percent is at double-digit points. They’re one point back of the first-place Oilers, who have dropped four of their last five. Despite frustration in recent weeks, the sky isn’t falling for the Golden Knights.
Reinforcements are on the way with Schmidt and forward Alex Tuch, who skated on the third line with Cody Eakin and Cody Glass for the second consecutive practice. Tuch is expected to make his season debut after missing the first 13 games with an upper-body injury.
Schmidt’s absence made the Golden Knights change things to an altering degree. Vegas relied on rookie defensemen Nic Hague and Jake Bischoff to replicate the scoring, but that didn’t work (the two have combined for two points). Jon Merrill took reps on the second power-play unit. I can’t think of anything that would strike fear in the hearts of opposing PK units less than that.
Schmidt will join a power play that is 8th in the league (25 percent) and could only get better. The second unit, highlighted by the line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, has combined for only two power-play goals in 13 games. Tuch is also expected to join Schmidt on that unit.
“Any time you miss a guy in the lineup, it forces guys to play different roles,” Schmidt said. “Whether it’s Tuchy, myself or Malcolm [Subban], all of us contribute in our own way. You lose a little bit of that continuity and chemistry in your lineup, it makes it harder and forces guys to do something they’re not used to doing, and that’s always a little bit of an adjustment period.”
Had Schmidt not missed the 20 games last season, he would’ve had a career year. His 30 points in 61 games in 2019 was only six off from the year prior in 15 fewer games. The Golden Knights’ defense will welcome that secondary scoring, considering Shea Theodore leads all Vegas defensemen with five points.
“Nate’s a good player. He’s been one of our top players for two-plus years. He’s going to make a big difference on our group,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “He’s important. Hopefully he’ll stay healthy. He’s a big loss when he’s not there, but when he’s not there, it gives kids like Hague and Bischoff a chance, and they showed they can play in the league. There’s always good in bad.”
A win would give the Golden Knights 18 points out of a possible 28 in October; a sign that they were able to survive the first month of the year much better than most would expect. The world is about to find out how this team looks at full strength and if this team constructed can contend for a Stanley Cup.
Schmidt absolutely helps that.
“I’m just excited to get back and be at the form I want to be at,” he said. “I thought I had a good summer, I thought I had a good camp. I was excited for the year, and friggin’ two minutes ice time in the first period ... maybe that was someone’s way of saying I wasn’t ready. It’s been hard but at the same time, I’m just excited.”