LAS VEGAS — Nate Schmidt was helping to coach a team of 15-year-olds at a Minnesota hockey tournament last June when he found out he had been selected in the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft.
His first thought? The Washington Capitals, with whom he had spent his first four years in the NHL, didn’t want him enough to protect him.
His second thought? Change could be a good thing.
That’s been the one constant with the so-called Golden Misfits. From William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault to Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore, switching teams meant switching identities.
It didn’t matter if a player had previously been stuck on the fourth line or sitting in the press box. Like a loner changing high schools, they now had the power to reinvent themselves and take a seat at the cool table.
“We could all start over,” said Schmidt. “And the perception of your game can be remodelled and redone. And I think that’s the coolest thing about what we’ve done in Vegas. We have enough guys who have revamped their style and for other guys to grow and be the players people may or may not have believed they could be where they are now.”
A year ago, the 26-year-old Schmidt was a third-pairing defenceman who temporarily lost his job when the Capitals acquired Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. With Vegas, he’s become Mr. Everything as the team’s ice-time leader — he’s averaging close to 25 minutes per game — and power play and penalty kill specialist.
It’s a role he never had a chance of playing in Washington. Of course, it must be said that once the Golden Knights selected Schmidt in the expansion draft, the Capitals instantly regretted losing him.
“We made our selection, and then (the Capitals) called and asked if there’s any way we could do a deal for him to get Schmidt back,” said Golden Knights GM George McPhee, who had no intention of relinquishing him. “And I said, ‘I don’t see anything, but we’ll try to come up with something to give you a chance to say no.’ So we made a proposal that I didn’t think would work, and it didn’t work because our guys like Schmidt. So we overreached on the ask, and that’s the way it went.”
The Golden Knights lack of a captain has not held the team back this season. If anything, head coach Gerard Gallant believes “it’s key” to getting them this far.
“George and I talked actually late in the training camp and said, you know what, let’s leave it without a captain this year,” Gallant said. “Let’s go with the six guys out there, the leadership group, and I think that’s the best decision we ever made. Sure, there’s guys who could have been captain in our group, but it was their first year.”
The last team to win a Stanley Cup without a captain was the 1988-89 Calgary Flames, who had Lanny McDonald and Tim Hunter as co-captains. As for which Vegas player would hoist the Cup if the team should win, the answer to that question was decided when the Golden Knights won the Clarence Campbell Bowl.
“It was an easy solution,” said Gallant. “The guys talked about it. They said, we want Deryk Engelland to go get the trophy for us. We never thought about that back in October or September in training camp.”
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
As a former member of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers, Engelland came into the season as the only player with previous hockey experience in Las Vegas. When asked if there was any indication back then whether the NHL would work in this city, the veteran defenceman mentioned the fans.
“I think it was in the top five,” he said of the attendance. “You knew that base was there.”
Of course, the two franchises did things differently to attract fans.
“One thing different that stuck out is probably the midnight game you did right before Christmas break every year,” said Engelland, who played for the Wranglers from 2003-05. “It was a lot of fun. Thought it would be a little different, but once you got in the rink, it’s Vegas. You can’t tell the time.”
The Vegas players are not the only ones who have received a new lease on life this season. McPhee has his fingerprints all over the Washington Capitals’ current team, but after losing his job in April 2014, he wondered if another team would give him a chance.
“It’s funny how life goes,” said the Golden Knights GM, who managed the Capitals for 17 years. “Two years ago I was walking around Ann Arbor kicking stones and couldn’t get a job. I’m certainly proud of the Washington team and the players. We made good selections, and they turned out to be real good players. You certainly take pride in that. When you’re working with them, they’re sometimes like your own kids … then you get fired and you’re suddenly persona non-grata because nobody wants to be seen to be too close to you in the organization.”
The Capitals went 0-2 against the Golden Knights this season, losing 3-0 in Vegas on Dec. 23 and 4-3 at home on Feb. 4. But the team apparently has learned from its past mistakes.
“First time we played them we were on the back-to-back right before Christmas, we were only here for 19 hours with the turnover from Phoenix,” said goalie Braden Holtby. “We weren’t as focused as we usually are in games. One thing was how they came out in the first period. They’re a quick team. Pressure is their forte.”
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