The COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 NHL season was not kind to defenceman Nate Schmidt. Just one year into a massive $35.7 million contract signed with the high-flying Vegas Golden Knights, the energetic blueliner was heartbroken to hear of a trade to the Vancouver Canucks in time for the start of the season.
Although the excitement of learning a new city and a new team was there, it just never quite worked out for Schmidt in British Columbia. Battling COVID, twice, the puck-mover failed to find his way with the young Canucks.
Putting up a career-low 15 points and finishing as a minus player (-7) for the first time over his eight years in the NHL, Schmidt welcomed the July 27, 2021 trade from Vancouver to Winnipeg with open arms.
Sure, lots can be blamed on team chemistry, a shortened season and COVID-related absences, but there isn’t much to blame Schmidt for now in Winnipeg, save for a deflection goal on Friday night that bounced off his foot and over Eric Comrie in the Jets’ 3-2 loss to his former teammates.
“Here’s the thing. It was a tough year for everybody last year,” Schmidt said when asked why Vancouver didn’t work out. “I don’t really want to say this one way or the other. Both parties looked at it as something that it was something they wanted to do. When you look at this as a whole, I really enjoyed my time. The people and the city of Vancouver was great to me while we were here, so there’s no hard feelings about that.”
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Some simple factors this season have given Schmidt more comfortably in his 16 games than he found in all of last year.
“Last season was incredibly hard on everybody,” he added. “One of the biggest things too is not having training camps was huge. Not getting that familiarity, compared to this year you can kind of ease yourself into it through preseason games and through the first little bit of the season – there’s a little more time.”
That time has done wonders for the offensive defenceman. Currently sitting at one goal and 11 points through 16 games, the 30-year-old is on pace for one of his best statistical outputs yet.
“It’s been a good change,” Schmidt said. “I have found my game again. Last year was hard. It’s hard to find your game in a short year. Trying to mesh and move on in and then COVID and everything. I think it’s been a lot more of a normal transition for me to go into it with the Jets here.”
Seemingly locked and loaded with Josh ‘J-Movechkin’ Morrissey at his side, a feeling of comfortably has found Schmidt in Winnipeg.
“If you look at the schedule, usually you look at what would be February/March and it’s just a box of games, right?” he explains. “And that’s kind of what we played all of last year. You get that beginning of the year 16 games since October, you get a little bit more time. But the transition has been really good. My mom and dad enjoyed the drive. It’s a pretty easy drive up. With Josh and I too, it’s been really easy gelling with guys. I think that’s something that makes a lot of difference.”
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Often serving as Winnipeg’s go-to first pass, Schmidt has also served a key role on many of the team’s various power play looks. Battling for special teams time with both Morrissey and Neal Pionk, he has clearly made an impression on his teammates despite his limited looks.
“I think he’s a great compliment to J-Mo,” forward Adam Lowry said. “They really move the puck really well and he’s really vocal and he really keeps it loose in the room, loose off the ice, on the ice. I just think moving the puck, getting back to pucks, them as a pair, they’ve read off each other extremely well. It seems like, they seem to be able to get up in the rush. They have the trust of one another that the other guys is going to cover. They just make those smart outlets, it’s really helped us find that four-hole coming up the ice.”
Prior to last season, Schmidt had averaged seven goals and 33 points over his three years with the Golden Knights. His six goals and 25 points in 68 career postseason games also indicate his ability to step up at important times. But according to his new head coach, Schmidt’s point production is not event his best quality.
“So the scouting report that I got from Pete DeBoer is that he’s one of the best culture guys he’s ever had in his room, and he’s been exactly that,” Maurice said of his spark plug defender. “He’s got a different personality, you’ve seen it come out. It fits really really well in our room. I think he’s also, with all of that, a more serious player than he comes across, because it’s at practice he’s going, at games he’s wired up and going. He can tell a joke on the bench and still go out and be a serious hockey player. Again, he’s not a casual player. Risk isn’t the right word, he’ll make plays, I think his game has evolved over the past five or six years, where he does some really darn good things defensively for us.”
Locked in at $5.95 million annually for three more seasons following the 2021-22 campaign, Schmidt will certainly look to build upon his strong start in blue and white, to prove it was last year as a Canuck that was the outlier, and not his point production off the bat in Winnipeg.