Capitals forward T.J. Oshie (right) tangled up with Wild center Mikael Granlund (left) in the Xcel Energy Center Tuesday. Oshie scored two goals in Washington's 5-4 overtime victory over Minnesota. Photo by Rick Orndorf, courtesy of the Minnesota Wild
Former Minnesota high school hockey standouts Nate Schmidt and T.J. Oshie understand hockey is a fluid sport in which things are always in flux, even for top-tier players who make it to the National Hockey League and manage to entrench themselves on winning clubs.
What’s status quo one day can easily be taken away the next, making it so nothing can — or should — be taken for granted.
“The uncertainty sometimes is tough from a mental aspect, but it’s kind of been that way for a while,” Schmidt said.
Both players have faced plenty of unknowns while following different paths in their professional careers, but Schmidt and Oshie have overcome the challenges to find success in the NHL. While their contributions have varied this season, the duo have played important roles in helping the Washington Capitals remain a Stanley Cup contender.
The Washington is the only NHL organization that defenseman and St. Cloud Cathedral graduate Nate Schmidt has known. Signed as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota in 2013, Schmidt had a bumpy road through Hershey, Pennsylvania, before earning regular playing time with the big club in the nation’s capital.
Schmidt spent consecutive seasons bouncing back and forth between playing for the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, and suiting up for games at the Verizon Center. Last season, Schmidt got his break and found himself with a one-way contract that allowed him to move on from the AHL, permanently.
“That’s hard on a young player,” Schmidt said. “But once you break in the league, it’s such a rewarding experience knowing you’ve made it to the point where you can solidify yourself as an NHL player. It’s hard — whether it’s the money aspect of it, the travel aspect of it, moving back and forth all the time — it gets tough. It’s a little bit taxing on your psyche, but it’s part of the game.”
After skating in 72 games throughout the 2015-16 season, Schmidt seemed to have found his spot among Washington’s six defensemen who are routinely in the lineup. Through two-thirds of the season, Schmidt continued making strides — and by all accounts — was considered a contributor who would have a long-term presence in the Capitals’ locker room.
On Feb. 27, the Capitals surprised the hockey world by trading with St. Louis for arguably the most prized player on the open market — Kevin Shattenkirk — and making it clear the organization ready to win now. While Shattenkirk is a free agent after this season, his arrival in Washington has squeezed Schmidt from the regular rotation.
“This game sometimes has got some up’s and down’s, but I still love being here. Being with the guys at the rink playing hockey for fun — and someone slipping you a check while you’re doing that — that’s the dream right there,” Schmidt said.
Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, on the other hand, gets to line up next to league superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on a consistent basis. If that’s not enough, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent is having a career season with 32 goals and 22 assists with a staggering 24.1 percent shooting percentage for the league-leading Capitals as they head into the final regular-season stretch before playoff action begins.
Against the Wild on Tuesday night, Oshie reminded the Xcel Energy Center crowd of 19,188 just how dangerous he can be on Minnesota ice, opening the game’s scoring by netting his 31st goal of the season. If that wasn’t enough of a jolt, the crowd later witnessed the former Warroad all-state selection and Mr. Hockey finalist hand the Wild a home loss with his 32nd goal of the season, sealing a 5-4 overtime victory.
While Oshie got the storybook ending against Minnesota on Tuesday, Schmidt was a healthy scratch. With Shattenkirk in the lineup and the entire roster healthy enough to play, the former Golden Gopher watched.
Though Schmidt is eager to play consistently, he realizes his situation is temporary.
“Sometimes you take that unconventional route and it gives you a different perspective on things, and you’ve got to go out there and earn everything you’ve gotten so far,” he said. “We’re a team pushing for something special, and I just want to be part of it any way possible.”
This return trip to Minnesota was a footnote for Schmidt, but it was also the latest installment in Oshie’s unfolding saga that’s bound to have more pages added before the season ends.
Oshie, who played collegiately at the University of North Dakota, had a rapid ascent after being drafted No. 24 overall by St. Louis in 2005. He was traded to the Capitals before the 2015-16 season began, meaning he left the only NHL club he’d known and joined a team that consistently qualifies for the playoffs but can’t quite escape the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“It was a different time in my life. I had one kid with one on the way when we went to D.C., and I was married,” Oshie said, reflecting on the trade. “When I was in St. Louis, I was a little bit younger and lived on my own.”
In addition to becoming more mature and a family man, Oshie realized there was a severe learning curve as he grew into league. To be successful, he had to adjust to the NHL’s level of talent and the challenges of an 82-game schedule.
“There’s so many games that you don’t have enough time to lounge around and eat bad food. Nutrition was the biggest eye-opener for me,” Oshie said. “My first two years, I had a tough time staying healthy. Energy-wise, I felt fine, but I kept getting hurt, so that was the biggest adjustment for me.”
The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy in the 2015-16 season — Oshie's first year in Washington — but the team was bounced from the conference semifinals by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh.
This season, Oshie (51-17-8, 110 points) is peaking at the right time for the Capitals, who have already secured a playoff berth. The 30-year old is focused on winning and appreciates his current situation with the level of talent that surrounds him.
“I had a couple injuries — a couple setbacks — but other than that, I’ve been finding ways to put the puck on net. Obviously, I’m playing with two great players (Ovechkin and Backstrom) and I’m in a pretty good spot on the power play,” Oshie said. “You’re going to get your chances when you play with guys of that caliber, and fortunately for me they’ve been falling in.”
Regardless of how the Capitals finish in the playoffs this spring, change is coming for Oshie and Schmidt. If he stays productive, Oshie should be a hot commodity and be able to pick which team to sign with in the offseason for the first time in his pro career. A return to Washington could keep him on a team with Schmidt, who will likely be back in the Capitals' regular rotation for 2017-18.
Schmidt, who has tallied two goals and 13 assists this season, is keeping his head up and doing everything he can to be a good teammate for a club trying to win its first Stanley Cup.
“Things happen, but I’d love to talk to you this time next year and see what kind of situation we’re rolling with. I have a feeling it’ll be a little different than it is now,” Schmidt said.
He also has some advice for younger players trying to navigate the uncertainties of a pro athlete’s career.
“You’ve got a lot of hockey in front of you. You can’t get hung up on certain things that happen in your career," he said. "Look at me now. I’m in a place where I’m not in the lineup again after playing for two years straight. Enjoy the camaraderie, enjoy every day, because some day you’re going to have to hang the skates up.”
Defenseman Nate Schmidt, a healthy scratch Tuesday, on the ice before the Capitals played the Wild. Schmidt has been in and out of the Capitals lineup since the club traded for Kevin Shattenkirk. Photo by Rick Orndorf, courtesy of the Minnesota Wild
Oshie fighting for the puck after a faceoff against the Wild. With his two scores Tuesday, Oshie has netted a career-high 32 goals on the season. Photo by Rick Orndorf, courtesy of the Minnesota Wild