In two consecutive summers, Nate Schmidt watched the NHL draft and waited to hear his name called. Both times, he was disappointed when it didn’t happen — but the Gophers defenseman got his happy ending Tuesday when he signed a free-agent contract with the Washington Capitals.

Schmidt, a junior, became the first Gophers underclassman to announce his departure since the team was upset by Yale in its NCAA tournament opener last Friday. He could be joined soon by junior winger Zach Budish, expected to sign with the Nashville Predators.

The Gophers also could lose junior centers Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad. Haula’s adviser has contacted the Wild, which drafted him in the seventh round in 2009, but the sides have not reached agreement on a contract. Bjugstad was chosen in the first round, 19th overall, by Florida in the 2010 draft.

Schmidt, 21, built himself into a coveted free-agent prospect with two outstanding seasons for the Gophers. He accepted a two-year entry-level deal with the Capitals after being named to the all-WCHA first team. The league’s highest-scoring defenseman with 32 points — including a career-high nine goals — Schmidt was a mainstay on the Gophers’ power play and penalty kill.

“This wasn’t an easy decision to make,’’ Schmidt said. “But it is the right decision. I wouldn’t trade my experience at the University of Minnesota for anything, and I’m incredibly grateful to the team and staff.’’

Schmidt said last week that he was upset after not being drafted, but he came to appreciate his situation. By developing into a premier player in college, he could attract interest from multiple teams.

“I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing that ever happened,’ ’’ he said. “If I can do something with my career [at the U], I’m not locked into one place. I could have choices.’’

Gophers coach Don Lucia praised Schmidt for his contributions to the program. The St. Cloud native ends his Gophers career with 74 points in 96 games.

“Nate is a great example of someone who was overlooked in the draft, but worked hard on and off the ice to put himself in great position to become our top defenseman the last two years,’’ Lucia said in a statement.

Gophers associate head coach Mike Guentzel said Schmidt is smart, energetic and a quick study, but he still must gain muscle to be an effective pro. “He will have to be more physical at the next level,’’ Guentzel said. “The next step for him is getting that pro muscle, that pro durability.’’

Haula was the Gophers’ leading scorer this season with 51 points. Bjugstad and Budish, a second-round selection by Nashville in the 2009 draft, were tied for third in scoring with 36 points each.


Staff writer Michael Russo contributed to this report.