Nate Schmidt hadn’t been a member of the Winnipeg Jets for more than 24 hours before having to play defence.
Schmidt, who was acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks late Tuesday, which included sending a 2022 third-round draft pick the other way, opened Wednesday’s press conference by stickhandling through reports and allegations the veteran defenceman had ruled out a trade to the Canadian prairies, only to change his mind a day later. Per the reports, the Minnesota native had Winnipeg as one of 10 teams on a no-trade list and was unwilling to remove it, ultimately squashing any chance of making a deal.
The recent reports also claimed Schmidt shot down an earlier attempt by the Jets to acquire his services last fall while he was with the Vegas Golden Knights. He was traded to the Canucks days later.
“I know there’s some things out there; we talked a little bit (about them) with the staff, about last year and things like that. I was never asked to put anything… or talked to last year about a trade to Winnipeg,” Schmidt said, unprovoked.
“There was never a conversation that said, ‘Hey, would you waive to go to Winnipeg?’ that I said no to. And for this one, I want to say it was kind of the same thing.”
Schmidt said on Monday he was bombarded by his agent with multiple trade offers and that he wanted time to really think his options through. Winnipeg, of course, was one of the potential destinations, and since he knew little about the city outside of a number of visits as an opposing player, Schmidt planned to do a bit of investigating.
But first, he took some time to clear his head.
“It wasn’t like on Monday it was ‘I’m never going to them.’ Then Tuesday I said ‘Oh, just kidding,'” he said. “I went up to my hunting land and just was chopping trees down, cutting some trails, just kind of clearing your head and processing everything. I just needed 24 or 48 hours to decompress.”
Schmidt eventually reached out to a number of former teammates in Vegas, including Winnipeggers Ryan Reaves, Mark Stone and Cody Eakin, to get a better idea about the city. But it was a chat with Jets forward Paul Stastny, another former Golden Knight who inked a one-year extension with the Jets on Monday, that sold him on the team culture and why he’d be a good fit.
“(Paul’s) an awesome guy, a straight shooter and he said you get treated really well, the staff and the guys and the organization, they do a great job with players and when you’re here you see such a tight group from top to bottom,” he said.
With the NHL’s salary cap expected to plateau over the next couple years owing to the COVID-19 breakout and the ensuing financial ramifications, teams are trying to find ways to shed salary. Meanwhile, the Jets were making attempts to bolster a defence that was its noticeable weakness the past couple of years.
It began with trading for Brenden Dillon from the Washington Capitals on Monday, which came at a cost of a second-round pick in 2022 and 2023. Dillon still has three more years remaining on his contract, with a cap hit of US$3.9 million per season.
Schmidt comes at an even greater price tag, as he’s still on the books for four more years, owed US$5.95 million per season. Known for his speed and offensive upside — he has three seasons with at least 30 points — Schmidt is also versatile, capable of playing either side. In fact, although he shoots left, he’s carved out an NHL career playing on the right side.
That should work just fine for the Jets, who have already committed to Josh Morrissey, Dillon and Logan Stanley playing the left side, with standout prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg also quality options. With the inclusion of Schmidt, the Jets have a formidable trio on the right side that also includes Neal Pionk (who remains an unsigned RFA) and Dylan DeMelo.
“It’s a really cool thing to be able to see how much this D-core has kind of changed in the last 24, 48 hours. There’s a lot of options,” Schmidt said. “You have a group here that is really fluid, can play with a lot of different combinations.”
While Schmidt said he’s already had some quality dialogue with Jets head coach Paul Maurice, none of those discussions have been about potential defensive partners or his future role on the team. He does, however, enter the 2021-22 season with a bit of a chip on his shoulder following a down year with the Canucks. In 54 games with Vancouver, he had five goals and 10 assists for just 15 points and was a minus-7.
The Canucks faced several obstacles last season, including a COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined more than 20 players, forcing the entire organization to delay three weeks of itd regular season. What’s more, Schmidt thought he had carved out a new hockey home with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who inked him to his six-year, US$35.8-million contract in Oct. 2020.
Less than a year later, he was traded to the Canucks to free up money to sign prized free-agent defenceman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year, US$61.6-million contract. Schmidt, who still has strong connections to Vegas, called it “a tough pill to swallow.”
Schmidt admitted all players had a tough go last season, but the abscence of fans and their collective energy seemed to take a particular toll on him. At 30, he still feels he can contribute at a high level, something he told Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff in their phone call welcoming him to the team.
“You go through a COVID situation, it was hard to kind of get yourself back,” he said. “I talked to Chevy yesterday and said, ‘There’s more to give.’ I know there’s more to give and I’m excited about starting fresh with Winnipeg.”
With a reputation of being a charismatic and energetic teammate, and someone who isn’t afraid to show off his personality, Schmidt should provide a refreshing perspective in a Jets dressing room that often takes a more business-like approach. He’s looking forward to integrating with his new team and into a city, a place he’ll now call home for the hockey season.
“I’m a guy that wears my heart on my sleeve,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes, for some guys, it’s a little bit of a shock. Bo Horvat used to say it was always the electric factory every day when I’d walk in. But it’s just me and I’ll be me. Like Braden Holtby would say, ‘be unapologetically you.’ You’ve just kind of got to do you and go from there.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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