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
Even for top-tier players who make it to the National Hockey League and manage to entrench themselves on winning clubs, hockey is a fluid sport where things are always in flux. What’s status quo one day can easily be taken away the next, making it so nothing can — or should — be taken for granted.
For Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt, a product of St. Cloud Cathedral, Washington is the only NHL organization he’s 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 getting to suit up 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.
Then on Feb. 27 the Capitals surprised the hockey world by trading for arguably the most prized player on the open market: Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis, making it clear the organization thinks its time to win is 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, as he opened 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 send the Wild home with his 32nd score of the season, powering the Capitals to 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.
“The uncertainty sometimes is tough from a mental aspect, but it’s kind of been that way for a while,” Schmidt said.
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.”
While returning to Minnesota to play the Wild wound up being a footnote for Schmidt on Tuesday, it was the latest installment in Oshie’s unfolding saga that’s bound to have more pages written 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 — the Blues — 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 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.”
In 2015-16, Oshie’s first season in Washington, he and the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy but were bounced from the conference semifinals by the eventual Stanley Cup champion, Pittsburgh.
This season, Oshie is peaking at the right time for the Capitals (51-17-8, 110 points), 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 both Oshie and Schmidt. If he stays as hot as he’s been, Oshie will have his pick of teams to sign with for the first time in his pro career this offseason, and Schmidt will likely be back in the Capitals' regular rotation for 2017-18.
In the meantime, Schmidt, who has tallied 2 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.
To help navigate the uncertainties of a pro athlete’s career, Schmidt offers some wisdom to younger players as he continues to enjoy his ride and path forward.
“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. 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