“Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you can find a picture of Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt in which he is not grinning, keep it. They are rare and might be worth something someday. You could go back, perhaps to the dawn of franchise history, and not find a Capital who included a smile on all but permanent display. You almost can hear him utter the famous Ernie Banks quote about his love and enthusiasm for the game… “It’s a beautiful day for a game, let’s play two.”
It even goes back to when he was a sophomore at St. Cloud Cathedral High School in Minnesota, an outfielder/pitcher whose favorite TV show was “Family Guy (according to the Caps media guide, it still is).”
And why shouldn’t he be happy? He was not drafted by an NHL team, but he played three seasons in his home state for one of the storied programs in NCAA hockey at the University of Minnesota. He signed a free agent contract with the Washington Capitals, and split time between the Caps and the AHL Hershey Bears for two seasons before sticking full-time with the Caps last season. In 2015-2016, Schmidt set a personal best in games played (72), tied a career-high in goals (two), tripled his career assist total (14; he had seven going into the season), and more than doubled his career point total (16; he had ten when the season started.
It was also a case of the more ice time Schmidt got in 2015-2016, the better the Caps did. Washington was 18-3-3 in games where Schmidt skated more than 20 minutes, 31-15-4 in games in which he skated less than 20 minutes. That might be an effect of the Caps leading in games and having more of a luxury to give a third pair defenseman like Schmidt more ice time than they would if they were trying to come from behind, but neither Schmidt nor the Caps suffered with more ice time.
Schmidt has not been a dominant possession player, but he has been a consistent one. In each of his three seasons with the Caps, he finished the year over 50 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5. He was at 50.60 percent in 2015-2016, fourth among Caps defensemen with at least 100 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from Corsica.hockey). And that smile isn’t plastered on his face all the time. Schmidt logged the first two fighting majors of his career in 2015-2016, one against Tampa Bay’s J.T. Brown on December 12th, the other against Arizona’s Max Domi on April 2nd. They were the first fights for Schmidt since his USHL days in 2009-2010. He had only six penalty minutes all season outside of those fights, and he had only two penalty minutes at home all season, and that was a delay-of-game penalty against Montreal the day after Christmas. Small wonder he got a third-place vote in the Lady Byng voting for most gentlemanly player, even with the two fights.
Another case of, “yeah, and what did you do during the playoffs?” Ten games, one point (an assist), minus-3, no shots on goal in six of the ten games in which he did play, just nine minutes of ice time in Game 5 against Pittsburgh in the second round, and he was benched for the Caps’ next game –their last of the season – the overtime loss to Pittsburgh in Game 6. It was an extension of the tail end of his regular season in which he was 0-5-5, minus-1 in his last 35 games. That’s 0-6-6, minus-5 in the last 45 games in which he played last season.
The Big Question… Is Nate Schmidt now a permanent fixture on the Caps’ blue line?
In three years with the Caps, Nate Schmidt has made modest progress toward becoming a permanent member of the top-six on defense. His games played progressed from 29 to 39 to 72, and he got his first taste of postseason action last spring. There is, however, the matter of his performance over the last half of the season. It was not a major step backward, but his progress seemed to have stalled. Perhaps it was a product of the season’s length, his playing in more games in the NHL that in his first two seasons combined and more minutes (about three more minutes per game at even strength than in 2014-2015).
It is all but certain that Schmidt will be penciled in on the third pair and will fill that role on a regular basis, absent injuries. It is a situation that should suit the Caps and Schmidt well, the team being talented and deep enough to accommodate Schmidt’s continued progress up the ladder of development and experience.
In the end…
Nate Schmidt is a “young” 25 years old in terms of his NHL experience to date – 140 regular season and ten postseason games. He has a good foundation under him, and he has made progress in sufficient amounts and timing to suggest that he is not done improving. This season will open a little bit differently for Schmidt in that there is little question at the top that he’s in the top-six. Given the Caps’ situation once they get past the top-six, it will be important to solidify his position and improve on the gains he has made.
The biggest part of that is going to be, as it will be for a number of young Capitals who underperformed late in the season and in the playoffs, avoiding a late-season swoon. A third-pair defenseman is not going to carry the club for any length of time, if at all, but neither can he disappear at that time of year, either. If Nate Schmidt can make timely, if not a high volume, of contributions late in the season and into the spring, he and the Caps will have a lot to smile about over next summer.
Projection: 74 games, 4-14-18, plus-11
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America