LAS VEGAS — Think of it this way, Capitals fans: Would you rather have Nate Schmidt or Tom Wilson?
It’s not that simple, because in reconstructing the NHL’s expansion draft, there is cloak-and-dagger stuff that might never be completely quantified. But we know this much: The Vegas Golden Knights lead the Washington Capitals after one game of the Stanley Cup finals, and no player averaged more ice time for those Knights over the course of the season than Schmidt, and there is still a notion back east that if these two teams actually met at this stage, shouldn’t Schmidt be wearing red instead of black?
“It was a little bit bittersweet,” Schmidt said here, before a throng of reporters who had suddenly made him an unlikely centerpiece of this series. “You thought you had done enough to put yourself in position that you’d still be in Washington.”
But Schmidt is here, half of the Golden Knights’ top defensive pair, joining Brayden McNabb in a duo that will be entrusted mostly with trying to slow the Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson. It’s quite a role for a player who was undrafted, who made more of an impact in Washington with his personality than his play, yet who was mourned from the minute he was exposed in the expansion draft.
“We did the very best to try to find those unknown surprises,” Vegas General Manager George McPhee said, “get a younger team, a player that may develop into names you’ll recognize now but didn’t then.”
This remarkable story of a first-year expansion team playing for a championship had to include a valuable player who felt unappreciated by whichever team Vegas faced in the final. The Knights pull that thread themselves. They’re the unwashed and the unwanted.
“We all could start over,” Schmidt said. “And the perceived perception of your game could be remodeled and redone. I think that’s the coolest part of what we’ve been able to do here in Vegas. You have guys who have been able to revamp their image or revamp their style.”
Play the disrespect card, because it’s a solid motivator. It’s instructive, though, to remember what Schmidt was midway through last season with the Capitals: a developing defenseman who was bumped out of the lineup when Washington traded for Kevin Shattenkirk. For three weeks, he watched from the press box, out of the lineup. When the playoffs began, he was scratched.
But by the conclusion of those playoffs, which ended with a seventh-game thud against Pittsburgh, Schmidt looked like a player on the rise.
“We had just got him to the point, development-wise, where he was going to expand his role,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said.
Given that the Capitals were losing Karl Alzner to free agency, and the fan base had a mostly hate-hate relationship with veteran Brooks Orpik — who, by the way, has seemed essential this spring — could Washington really afford to expose a 26-year-old defenseman who was ready to embrace a more important role?
Without re-engineering the entirety of a summer that already has been circled by vultures, keep in mind that the Capitals opted to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie – rather than any eight skaters and a goalie, the other option the NHL’s rules allowed. They kept 11 players away from Vegas rather than nine. One of those, of course, was forward Marcus Johansson, who was later traded to New Jersey for draft picks. At the time, the Capitals didn’t know if they would be able to re-sign forwards T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov to long extensions. Given that, the club believed it had to protect Johansson. Andre Burakovsky was 22 and coming off a postseason in which his two goals in a Game 6 victory against Pittsburgh cemented his status as a player whose trajectory seemed upward. Wilson, like Burakovsky, was a first-round draft choice under McPhee when he ran the Caps. There were no easy choices.
Had the Capitals protected Schmidt, they almost certainly would have left Wilson exposed. It wasn’t ideal. Teams that had built depth would be hurt the most, because they couldn’t protect it all. When McPhee and MacLellan spoke before the expansion draft, it became clear Vegas would zero in on Schmidt.
“Some teams tried to do other things to protect their roster,” McPhee said, talking about deals he made to get two players at the condition he lay off one. “And some guys just said, ‘Take who you’re going to take.’”
MacLellan, though, asked if there was a two-player package that might allow the Knights to stay away from Schmidt. The counter, according to someone with knowledge of the talks: Wilson and goalie Philipp Grubauer.
“We overreached on the ask,” McPhee said.
So here we are, in the Stanley Cup finals, with Schmidt wearing black, being asked to analyze both sides. This is one tale of how Vegas was built, but it’s the one that matters most now, because only one Golden Knight was a Capital last year.
Now, Schmidt is a centerpiece for Vegas, in part because of his development on the ice, but significantly for his personality off it. He appears prominently on the scoreboard that hangs above center ice, imploring the fans. He never declines an interview. He’s what he was in Washington — with a higher profile.
“He obviously has a lot of energy, right?” said Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was paired with Schmidt some last year. “But he’s fun. Over an 82-game schedule, you need guys like that. . . . There are days where you come in, you feel tired. Once you see him, you don’t feel very tired anymore.”
But Schmidt’s motormouth can’t run constantly over six months of a season. When it got to be too much, the Capitals developed a “safe word” that, when uttered, signaled to Schmidt to calm the bleep down: “Penguin.”
“I don’t even know how it started,” Orpik said. “But he would quiet down quick.”
Now, Schmidt’s job is to quiet Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. If he does that, there’ll be more of an inclination to revisit how the Capitals ended up facing one of their own for the Cup. Resist that urge, focus on Wilson, and ask: With whom are the Capitals better off?