Jay Beagle, right, locks up with former Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt. (John Locher/Associated Press)

LAS VEGAS — Before the Washington Capitals even landed in Sin City, roughly 30 of their fans went to City National Arena for a Vegas Golden Knights practice to see Nate Schmidt.

They cheered him. They held up printout masks of Schmidt’s face. They posed for photos with him. They lamented that he was no longer one of theirs.

Schmidt was swiped by Vegas in the expansion draft this summer, a hit to Washington’s blue-line depth from which the team is still working to recover. Four years ago, then-Capitals general manager George McPhee traded away Swedish forward prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators, and as Forsberg has blossomed into a perennial 30-plus-goal scorer, Washington fans have understandably wondered what could have been if the Capitals had kept him. It remains a touchy subject.

Will losing Schmidt in the expansion draft become a similar lament? The Golden Knights have surprised as one of the top teams in the Western Conference, and Schmidt has led the team in ice time at 22:33. He has two goals and 13 assists and is two points away from matching his total from all of last season. Meanwhile, the Capitals’ blue line is considered the team’s greatest flaw, even as Washington has rebounded from early-season struggles to enter the Christmas break in second place in the Metropolitan Division. It also stung that Vegas beat visiting Washington, 3-0, on Saturday night.

“Coming from a situation where you’re fighting for every ice time you can get and every shift you’ve got, to the point now where we match up against other teams’ top lines and being able to have that kind of confidence from the staff in you, it’s what you want as a player,” Schmidt said before the game. “I wasn’t sure it was going to be like this right away. You look at the first game of the year; I played the least amount of minutes. From then on, it’s kind of been building.”

Schmidt is the modern NHL’s prototypical defenseman, a puck-mover who can skate fast and efficiently, and a one-man breakout who also has the speed to get back and cover for any mistakes. Often on the ice against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals’ top line during Saturday’s matchup, Schmidt was able to contain Washington’s superstar captain as skillfully as any other defenseman this season. After Vegas’s win, Schmidt appeared on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” as one of the faces of the new franchise. With the Capitals last season, he occasionally struggled to crack the lineup.

“I think he’s playing really well with our group,” Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s playing real confident. He’s playing a real solid defensive game. … The way he skates and moves the puck, we really like him.”

Ahead of the expansion draft in June, teams had the choice of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters and one goaltender. The second option enabled some teams to save more blue-liners, but the Capitals chose to protect more of their skilled forwards. John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were the defensemen protected, which meant Schmidt was exposed, even after he played his best hockey in the postseason.

It was an understandable call at the time, but when Washington later ran into salary-cap constraints and traded forward Marcus Johansson for the underwhelming return of two draft picks, the decision not to protect Schmidt in the eight-skater format was highlighted as an error during a tough offseason.

Considering the role he plays, his $2.25 million salary-cap hit is a bargain, and though the Capitals are still developing two rookies on the blue line, acquiring a veteran top-four option before the trade deadline will be costly if Washington feels it needs more experience before the playoffs. Schmidt was penciled in to play alongside Carlson, which would have rounded out the top four. How long will fans wonder what could have been?

“Nate is an outstanding young individual, was a great person to coach, was a great teammate for everybody in our room who played with him, and he brought a lot of energy and was a fan favorite,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said. “The same thing that he brought to us in Washington, he’s doing it here [in Vegas].”

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