VANCOUVER — Nate Schmidt didn’t know he was about to be moving on from the Vegas Golden Knights until the deal was done.
The 29-year-old defenceman had been with Vegas since the team’s inception in 2017, so when news came Monday that he’d been traded to the Vancouver Canucks for a third-round draft pick in 2022, it came with a lot of emotions.
“Last night was hard,” Schmidt said on a video call Tuesday. “Not many guys can say they’ve been with a place from the ground up.”
The emotions are quickly becoming more positive, however, as Schmidt thinks about the team he’s joining.
“With each hour, the excitement has been building about the opportunity to be in a Canadian market and play for a team that’s upward trending in terms of the organization and terms of the players on the ice,” he said.
Schmidt knows the Canucks well. Not only has he faced the divisional rival in regular-season play, he was also part of the Vegas squad that battled Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs this year.
The Golden Knights steamrolled the Canucks through the first two matchups but Vancouver fought back, pushing the series to seven games before Vegas prevailed.
Vancouver’s tenacity created a buzz in the Edmonton bubble, Schmidt said.
“That’s the kind of team you want to be a part of,” he said. “You want to be a part of a group of guys that will fight for each other, tooth and nail, all the way down to the end.”
Adding Schmidt fills a hole for the Canucks, who lost several key pieces — including defencemen Chris Tanev (Calgary Flames) and Troy Stecher (Detroit Red Wings) — in free agency last week.
Hailing from St. Cloud, Minn., Schmidt went undrafted, then signed with the Washington Capitals as a free agent after playing two seasons at the University of Minnesota.
He spent four seasons in Washington, playing with centre Jay Beagle, who signed with the Canucks in 2018, and goalie Braden Holtby, who joined Vancouver in free agency last week.
Vegas selected Schmidt in the expansion draft and gave him big minutes. He saw his career high in points soar to 36 (five goals, 31 assists) in 2017-18. Following the performance, he inked a six-year extension with an average annual value of US$5.95 million in October 2018.
Last season, he registered 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists) in 59 regular-season games, then added another nine (two goals, seven assists) in the post-season before the Dallas Stars ousted Vegas from the third round of the playoffs.
Schmidt expected to be with the Golden Knights long term but said he doesn’t hold any hard feelings against his former team. He knew something would have to give in order for the club to make room for defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who signed a seven-year, US$61.6-million deal with Vegas on Monday.
Now Schmidt’s looking at where he fits on Vancouver’s roster. He sees himself as someone who can jump up in the play and get the puck to skilled players like Elias Pettersson, or take on some tough minutes by defending hard and “eating a couple of pucks for dinner.”
“I take pride in playing against the other team’s top line and doing my damage to shut guys down the best you can,” he said.
There will already be some familiar faces in Vancouver’s locker room. In addition to Beagle and Holtby, Schmidt is friends with right-winger Brock Boeser, having played with him in a Minnesota summer hockey league dubbed Da Beauty League.
Schmidt said he’s heard from a number of people that what makes the Canucks special is their tight-knit locker room.
“That’s what gets you excited,” he said. “I hope the guys aren’t too sensitive about me being too loud and goofy sometimes in the locker room. I guess that’s what I’m most afraid of. But it’ll all work out.”
The Canucks announced Tuesday that they’re also bringing back defenceman Ashton Sautner on a one-year, two-way contract. The 26-year-old from Flin Flon, Man., appeared in just one game for the Canucks last season, spending the rest of the year with the Utica Comets in the American Hockey League.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2020.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press