GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. – As Nate Schmidt’s defensive partner most of this season, Brady Skjei figured he knew his Gophers teammate pretty well. It surprised him, then, when Schmidt mentioned he had played forward in some games during a difficult freshman year.
Skjei, a rookie, has soaked up so much knowledge from his junior mentor that he found it hard to believe that Schmidt had not always been a mainstay of the Gophers’ defensive corps. Schmidt still finds it a little hard to believe where he is now, considering his rocky start.
“I told Brady, ‘Those were the dark days of my career,’ ’’ said Schmidt, a first-team all-WCHA pick and the highest-scoring defenseman in the league. “That made what I’m doing now feel that much better. I know how hard it was to get here.’’
Ignored in the NHL draft and unsure of his place on a talent-laden team, Schmidt saw little ice time as a freshman and finished the season with one assist in 13 games. Once he discovered his identity as an offensive defenseman as a sophomore — and gained confidence through the nurturing of coaches Don Lucia and Mike Guentzel — he took off. Schmidt followed last year’s spectacular season with another big year, maintaining his place as one of the top-scoring defensemen in college hockey.
Schmidt has played all 39 games this season and has eight goals and 23 assists. He now is considered one of the top unsigned prospects in the college game. The only blemish on his sophomore season was the Gophers’ loss to Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinals, a shortcoming he hopes to rectify beginning with Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against Yale.
“As a freshman, I really didn’t know what type of player I was or what type of player I wanted to be,’’ said Schmidt, a St. Cloud native who played at Cathedral High School. “Once I understood, and once I had the confidence to go out there and do it, I just ran with it. It feels good to be where I’m at, but there are still a lot of things left to be done here this year.’’
Guentzel, who works with the defensemen as the team’s associate head coach, said Schmidt’s wide palette of skills will be critical to the team’s postseason fortunes.
“I trust Nate in every role,’’ Guentzel said. “He’s a smart player and a guy who can provide a lot of energy. When he plays well, our team will play well.’’
As a high school junior, Schmidt compiled 53 points in 31 games, earning him second team all-state honors as the state’s second-highest scoring defenseman. He developed both sides of his game during a season with the U.S. Hockey League’s Fargo Force. But when he joined the Gophers, he felt unsure of his role.
He had a meeting with Lucia after a freshman season in which he played sparingly. The coach told Schmidt to aspire to be the same two-way player he was in Fargo. That summer, Schmidt began working with Guentzel, who returned to the Gophers after three seasons away.
Guentzel saw a player whose offensive gifts did not diminish his commitment to play defense. He also liked Schmidt’s eagerness to learn and his devotion to the program.
“He worked hard, and he wanted to get better on a daily basis,’’ Guentzel said. “Some guys take a little step back when you approach them and want to show them some things. Nate has taken a step forward. He wants to receive information and be coached, to continue to learn about the game and the position.’’
A jovial guy with a permanent smile, Schmidt is among the players instrumental in keeping the nation’s No. 2 team from getting wound too tightly. During games, his teammates say, he is all business. “He will do anything to get the win,’’ said fellow junior Jake Parenteau, an occasional on-ice partner. “He sees the ice very well, he moves the puck up the ice real fast, and he knows where the forwards are and where they’re going to be.’’
Schmidt said he has worked this season to continue improve his play in the defensive zone, with an emphasis on thinking rather than reacting. Guentzel credited Schmidt for his unselfish work with the Gophers’ young defensemen, even as he takes on the opponents’ best players and plays a key role on offense.
When he watched the NHL draft the year he was eligible, Schmidt recalled how deflating it was not to hear his name called. But his play this season and last has caught the attention of NHL teams. And he said he will explore his options when the Gophers’ season ends — not soon, he hopes.
“I just want to win so bad after what happened last year,’’ he said. “[College hockey] was an eye-opening experience as a freshman. But the way things have turned out, it was all for the best.’’