Defenseman Nate Schmidt just finished his junior season at the U. of Minnesota, and once he did so, he had a line of suitors queueing up to sign him to a pro contract. On Tuesday, Schmidt opted to sign a two-year entry level deal with the Capitals.
Schmidt was one of several dozen players in attendance at last July’s summer development camp, and he was one of the best players on the ice throughout the week.
“I had some options to go to some camps,” Schmidt told me last summer, “so I looked at the Caps’ organization and where they’ve been the last couple of years. I really thought the fit was right for me. I really got to know [Caps director of player development] Steve Richmond and [Caps amateur scout] Wil Nichol, some of the guys in the organization. I got to know them pretty well. They expressed the interest and when you’ve established relationships it’s a lot easier to make a decision. And getting to come here with a couple friends of mine also helps. [Caps prospects] Travis Boyd and Caleb Herbert are guys I’ve played with and against growing up so it helps to know a couple guys here. When it’s a first-class organization such as the Caps, it’s an easy decision.”
Schmidt had many options of pro camps to attend last summer, but it was Boyd who helped sell him on Washington.
“I think if you asked him,” Schmidt laughed, “I probably asked upwards of 100 questions about the camp. Even before I had made my decision I wanted to talk to him about it. He said it’s well run and it’s tough – which is what you want it to be – and it’s an exciting experience. He said that between the fans and the organization, it’s a good place to be.”
Very early in his breakout sophomore campaign, teams started taking notice of Schmidt and seeking his attendance at their upcoming summer camps. The Caps were one of those teams, but they didn’t put a lot of pressure on Schmidt.
“It was probably a month or two into the [2011-12] season,” Schmidt related. “I really didn’t look at any of the stuff, I just told them, ‘Until the season is over, I’m not going to get into any decision as to which camp to go to.’ I talked to Wil Nichol, and he said he’d let me have my time and that he would talk to me after the season was over. I was impressed by that, that they respected my decision.”
Schmidt’s collegiate career started quietly; he had just one assist in 13 games as a freshman and didn’t play his primary position as much as he played elsewhere.
“We had a lot of senior [defensemen] and I played more games at forward than at defense,” Schmidt recalled. “It was a tough year. I couldn’t really find a spot and I was in and out of the lineup. I actually only played consecutive games once and that was as a forward. I was really trying to find my game as a freshman, I guess. Because I came out of juniors and a had a pretty good year at Fargo. But a lot of things that worked there didn’t work in college. So I kind of ran into some problems right away. But we had a really good coaching staff and that helped me out a lot.”
Coming off an underwhelming freshman campaign in 2010-11, Schmidt didn’t have the look of a guy who would be in pro demand a couple of years later. But the sophomore broke out in a big way, posting 38 assists and 41 points in 43 games to draw the attention of NHL scouts everywhere.
Schmidt led the 2011-12 Gophers squad with 28 power play points, 52 blocked shots and a plus-24 rating. His 38 assists were tops among all defenseman nationally, third in the nation overall and sixth all-time among single-seasons by U. of Minnesota defensemen. Schmidt was named to the All-WCHA second team at season’s end as the Gophers just missed out on a national title game, falling in the quarter-final to Boston College.
“I had a lot of confidence,” Schmidt told me last July. “I got in and coach [Don] Lucia sat me down and told me, ‘You’re going to have to play yourself out before you’re going to have to play yourself into a spot.’ It just gave me a lot of confidence to go out there and do the things that I knew how to do. So when I went out there the first couple of practices, I had the confidence to to the things that I knew they had recruited me to do. That was probably the single biggest thing, and [assistant] coach [Mike] Guentzel being in my corner all the time. He told me ‘Hey, we know what you can do, now just go out there and show us.’ That was the biggest thing.
“And after you make those first couple of plays the first couple of games, it just kind of piggy-backs. You’re just trying to one-up yourself. I just tried to get better, one weekend at a time, one game at a time.”
Even last summer, as he was preparing for his junior year at Minnesota, Schmidt acknowledged that turning pro was in the back of his mind.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “I’ll be working with my advisor and we’ll be thinking of the possibilities. And there obviously is a possibility of moving on if the opportunity is there. But for right now, it’s about heading back to college and just trying to have a good year and trying to replicate what I did this past year.”
Mission accomplished. His assists declined but his goal total tripled as a junior. Schmidt racked up nine goals and 23 asissts for 32 points in 40 games in 2012-13. He was an All-WCHA first team selection and he led all WCHA blueliners (and tied for third nationally) with 32 points.
The 21-year-old native of St. Cloud, Minn. says he has always dreamed of playing in the NHL.
“Absolutely,” said Schmidt of reaching his ultimate goal of skating in the NHL. “You get into the college game and you get to play against a lot of draft picks and a lot of kids who come to these types of camps and you get to measure yourself against them. And then that next step is coming to a camp like this and you get to measure yourself again and see where you fit in amongst the best players in major juniors and the best players in the European leagues. It’s a learning process, but overall I’m just trying to get better every time I am on the ice.”
Last summer’s development camp was the Caps’ first under the tutelage of coach Adam Oates. Oates and Richmond changed the format of the camp to make it more scrimmage oriented, and it resulted in a fast-paced, competitive camp that Schmidt enjoyed and found useful.
“It’s been really good,” Schmidt said. “I’ve really enjoyed myself. The city has been great, I love the facilities, it’s top-notch. I think it’s gone really well. You’ve seen a lot of good forwards and it’s a great pace here. Those forwards have some speed and it’s tough to play against, but you get to test yourself against some of the best kids. You go up against [Stanislav] Galiev and the silky hands he has or a [T.J.] Syner and the speed he has. It’s fun. It’s a good time.”
After racking up 81 penalty minutes in 57 games with the USHL’s Fargo Force in 2009-10, Schmidt totaled just 36 PIM in 96 games in his three-year career with the Gophers. At 6-foot-0 and 195 pounds, he is never going remind anyone of Zdeno Chara physically, but he does believe that is one area of his game that could use some work.
“That’s the one thing I think that I’m going to try to improve upon,” Schmidt told me. “This past year I got a little bit away from it. A couple of years ago in juniors, I liked to drop the mitts a little bit. I didn’t mind fighting or getting into that type of game. I think in order to succeed at any level, you can’t be one-dimensional. You have to be able to incorporate those things into your game in order to be a better player. You have to be as well-rounded as possible.”
Although he spent the last three seasons at U. of Minnesota, Schmidt wasn’t always a Golden Gophers sympathizer. Growing up in St. Cloud, he pulled for the St. Cloud St. Huskies, Caps forward Matt Hendricks’ alma mater.
“You watch Paul Martin, the defenseman from Pittsburgh, he’s a U. of M. guy,” said Schmidt. “Him and [Dallas defenseman] Alex Goligoski. Very good skating players. The funny thing is I used to hate [the Gophers]. I’m a St. Cloud kid, and you had that ingrained in your mind that you were supposed to hate them. It took me a while after I ahd been there to really appreciate the players that had gone through there.
“That’s what makes that school special. Those guys all come back there. You see those guys and [Buffalo forward Thomas] Vanek working out there. It’s really quite a treat watching and working out with those guys. You see how hard those guys work, and I really look up to Paul and Alex.”
For now, Schmidt will report to Washington where he is expected to practice with the Capitals on Wed. April 3.