LAS VEGAS — Defenseman Nate Schmidt scored 36 points in the 2017-18 regular season, his first with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Schmidt, 26, had totaled 41 points in his previous 200 NHL games — all of them with the Washington Capitals.
In 2013, Schmidt was plucked from thin air by then-Capitals general manager George McPhee who thought the undrafted free agent had the potential to be a standout, top-pairing backstop after four years at the University of Minnesota.
McPhee did not get to see his flower bloom. He was kicked out of town by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis a year after signing Schmidt.
Three years after McPhee was fired, the Capitals and Golden Knights are facing each other in the Stanley Cup Final, a series almost impossible to imagine back at the start of the season.
Schmidt is now the Golden Knights’ top defenseman. McPhee, now Vegas’ GM, picked him in the 2017 expansion draft after being left exposed by Washington. The Minnesotan is averaging almost 25 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs for the Knights. Last season, he skated a mean of around 15 minutes in 60 regular-season outings with the Capitals, ranking seventh on the team.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
Last June, as the expansion draft approached, McPhee made it known to current Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, his former assistant and college hockey teammate, that he intended to pluck Schmidt from the Capitals. Schmidt was the team’s most promising young defenseman, but MacLellan had made the tough choice to leave him exposed. However, MacLellan, in his third year as McPhee’s replacement, had no intention of letting Schmidt leave the District.
“We made our selection, and then [MacLellan] called and asked if there’s any way we could do a deal for him to get Schmidt back,” McPhee told reporters Sunday, a day before the Capitals will face the Golden Knights in Game One of the Final.
But like MacLellan, McPhee knew he wanted Schmidt on his team.
“I said, ‘I don’t see anything, but we’ll try to come up with something to give you a chance to say no,'” McPhee said of his conversations with MacLellan. “We made a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work because our guys like Schmidt.”
With that, Schmidt headed to the desert.
“It was pure business,” MacLellan said of the process, added that the friendship between the GMs did not lend itself to any favors during their tense expansion draft negotiations.
“I tried to get deals done to protect Schmidt, and it just didn’t make sense for what they were asking,” MacLellan said Sunday.
“We had to let him go.”
Headline photo: Ethan Miller
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