If Gophers defenseman Nate Schmidt looked out of place on the ice last season, there's a good reason.
He was literally playing out of place.
Schmidt played in only 13 games as a freshman -- much of the time at left wing on the third line. During the holidays, rumors circulated the highly touted offensive-minded defenseman from St. Cloud might leave the team.
"That's not my type of personality," Schmidt said. "I am not going to take the easy way out and go somewhere else. I took my medicine. Sometimes you have to wait to get your shot."
It's still the first month of a new season, but Schmidt looks like a completely different player. He is the highest scoring defensemen in college hockey going into the Gophers' second WCHA series at Alaska Anchorage this weekend.
Schmidt has one goal and eight assists, with seven of his points coming on the power play. He is the lone defenseman and quarterback on the team's top power-play unit.
"This is the Nate Schmidt we expected when we recruited him," Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
In his first season, Schmidt was the Gophers' seventh defenseman, playing behind four veterans and two fellow freshmen. As midseason approached, Lucia asked Schmidt to switch to forward. "[Nate] played aggressively," Lucia explained, "and it is not like we were scoring a bunch anyway with last year's team."
Schmidt, who registered just one assist a year ago, agreed: "I was trying to get in the lineup any way possible."
Primarily, though, he watched. Schmidt was in the stands at Mariucci Arena when Alaska Anchorage swept the Gophers in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
"That's why this time around I am real excited about going up there," Schmidt said. "How much better can it get?"
Not too much for the maroon and gold. The No. 8 Gophers are scoring an NCAA-best 5.83 goals per game and have the nation's best power play at 37.5 percent. Schmidt never was interviewed last season. But facing a big media horde after his three-point game Sunday in a 5-4 loss to Vermont -- including his first career goal -- Schmidt was poised and kept smiling and crediting his teammates for his success.
"Nice to meet everybody, I'm Nate," he quipped before talking about his role on the power play. "I get to shoot once in a while, but my job is to get our playmakers the puck. They're good at what they do."
Schmidt has a big shot from the point. As a junior at St. Cloud Cathedral, he had 25 goals and 53 points. He played in the USHL for the Fargo Force as a high school senior and had 14 goals and 37 points. NHL scouts regularly watched him at Cathedral, but he was passed over in the 2009 NHL draft.
"It was a reality check for me," Schmidt said. "Maybe you are not as good as you think you are. It was a little kick in the butt."
Last season, he said, was a second kick and led to him increasing his summer training. Before his freshman season, Schmidt did only mandatory workouts. Last summer he trained on off-days as well and skated an extra day every week. He shed a little weight; now Schmidt calls himself "a well-tuned machine" at 5-11 and 190 pounds.
Lucia promised Schmidt a spot in the lineup last spring -- unless he lost it. And then Mike Guentzel was rehired in mid-July, this time as associate head coach.
"When Nate found out [about Guentzel], he was very excited," Cathedral coach Eric Johnson said. "That was the guy who recruited him."
Schmidt calls Guentzel, who works with the blue-line corps, a high-energy, in-your-face coach.
"If you make a mistake, you are going to hear about it for a couple minutes to come," Schmidt said. "He holds everybody accountable, at least our defensemen."
A confident Schmidt appreciates a taskmaster like that -- and more ice time in his customary spot, of course.