Acquired in the offseason for the low, low price of a single third round pick in 2022, how could Nate Schmidt be anything other than a beneficial addition for the Vancouver Canucks in 2021?
They had two drafts and a full calendar year to go before they even had to pay up for him, and he arrived on a Vancouver blueline seemingly devoid of the steadying presence he was said to provide.
And yet, most would deem Schmidt’s debut season with the Canucks a disappointment. Not a disaster, mind you, but a disappointment all the same — and one primarily based on Schmidt’s track record prior to hitting the West Coast.
Through three seasons with the Golden Knights, Schmidt had evolved into one of the best two-way defenders in the game, period. He led the Knights on two major playoff runs, posting among the strongest defensive metrics in the league as he did, all the while elevating less-than-stellar partners like Brayden McNabb to new heights. In time, Schmidt would lose his top-pairing spot, first to the younger and dynamic-er Shea Theodore and then to UFA Alex Pietrangelo, whose gigantic salary necessitated the trading of Schmidt for pennies on the dollar.
Unfortunately, Schmidt’s regression in Vancouver was also two-way.
The most clear and present sign of Schmidt’s struggles is his raw offensive production. He played five fewer games in 2021 than he did in 2019/20, but he scored less than half the points. Given that most of his fallback came in the assist category, one could posit that this had at least a little to do with the quality of his teammates, but it’s still impossible to ignore.
Career Avg. Prior
Schmidt’s per-game ratios make the drop-off seem a little less dramatic, but they also put to bed the lie that Schmidt regressed because he was given a more difficult assignment in Vancouver. His ice-time actually decreased by quite a bit compared to what it was in Vegas, and his deployment was far more favourable – but more on that in a minute.
Sticking with offence, it’s important to note that Schmidt still finished third among Vancouver blueliners in scoring and that the Canucks relied more on their defenders for offence than any other team in the league.
This came with limited opportunities on the power play, as Quinn Hughes greedily gobbled up most of those minutes.
Schmidt seemed to be at his best when he was able to activate into the offensive zone and jump up into plays, but those moments were few and far between.
Perhaps this was due to Schmidt feeling the need to cover for his teammates more often, and perhaps it was part of his overall difficult transition to Vancouver’s style of play.
Either way, Schmidt remained a reliable shooter from the point, capable of consistently getting pucks on net, even if most of them were turned aside by opposing goaltenders.
Really, all it would take is a small uptick in production from Schmidt, coupled with greater overall scoring from the Canucks as a whole, to get him right back to his previous offensive standard.
In terms of quarterly results, Schmidt was relatively consistent, though it is curious that his best results by far came during the season’s second quarter, during which Schmidt received his least ice-time of the season.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
For a player who had previously thrived under huge minutes, that’s possibly cause for concern.
Flipping over to more multifaceted measures, we arrive at Schmidt’s advanced stats, which went from holy to holey this year. That was definitely to be expected as he transitioned from the analytic juggernaut Knights to the notoriously porous Canucks, but dropping between 5-10% in each major analytic category is evidence of inferior on-ice impact regardless of the context.
From NaturalStatTrick.com (even-strength)
Somewhat surprisingly, Schmidt wasn’t a go-to penalty killer in Vegas, nor was he in Vancouver. He did kill penalties regularly, but only achieved moderate results on a team that ranked in the middle of the shorthanded pack overall – results made even less impressive by the fact that Schmidt played most of his PK shifts against second power play units.
(Team rank, D)
If there’s one singular item that demonstrates how much Schmidt’s play regressed in Vancouver beyond his change in situation, it’s his quality of competition. Just take a look at his 2021 deployment next to how the Knights used him in 2019/20.
In Vegas, Schmidt played far more against opposing top lines than the league average, and came away with sparkling results. In Vancouver, he still had a qual-comp slightly above the league average, but that somehow seemed to hurt his effectiveness.
If we can dash back to offence for a second, it should be noted here that Schmidt’s quality of linemates decreased more sharply in Vancouver than his quality of competition. He spent far less time on the ice with his best teammates than he did in Vegas, further demonstrating that his reduction in assists wasn’t entirely his own fault.
And while we’re being all apologetic, it also should be said that Schmidt’s qual-comp, while lesser than what he faced in Vegas, was still the second toughest on the Vancouver blueline after Alex Edler. It’s not as if he had an easy assignment, just an easier one!
Speaking of Edler, that’s who Schmidt spent the vast majority of the 2021 season alongside, with nearly 60% of his even-strength shifts occurring on Edler’s right side.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
Schmidt switched over to the left side to accompany Tyler Myers for another 23% of his shifts, and then split his time fairly evenly among every other potential partner on the Vancouver blueline. Schmidt’s best play definitely came on the right, but his versatility was something he didn’t get enough credit for, and that certainly made coach Travis Green’s life easier amid a difficult season.
Schmidt’s direct impact on those he shared the ice with was a decidedly mixed bag, as visualized by Micah Blake McCurdy’s patented WOWY charts. Some players performed drastically better when paired up with Schmidt, some performed drastically worse, and most performed roughly the same as they did otherwise.
If anything, most players seemed to enjoy a slight uptick in their expected goals rate while Schmidt was on the ice, underlying evidence of his puck-moving prowess despite a lack of finish on either his part or theirs.
In isolating Schmidt’s impact on his defensive partners, we again end up with a difficult interpretation. Earlier in the year, this author wrote an article about
how Edler was experiencing some of the best defensive metrics of his career alongside Schmidt.
By the end of the season, the Schmidt Effect had faded. Overall, Edler had his strongest defensive and possession numbers alongside Schmidt, but he didn’t suffer all that much without him – save for the rate of high-danger chances he gave up.
The ancient Edler falling off somewhat as the season became more compressed was to be expected, and so a generous reading of this situation may be that Schmidt elevated Edler’s game in the early going, and then Edler dragged Schmidt down with him under the strain of the grind as the year progressed.
Myers is an interesting case study, as well. In terms of puck possession, Myers was actually slightly better off when he wasn’t playing with Schmidt, but Myers’ control of scoring chances increased leaps and bounds when Schmidt was on his left. Surely, Schmidt offered the famously frantic Myers at least some level of stability as a partner.
Lastly, we’ll mention Hughes. Though some were salivating at the thought of a Hughes/Schmidt pairing this summer, the duo only spent about an hour of even-strength ice-time together in 2021. In that short sample, however, Hughes played probably his best hockey of the season.
For all the noise made about Travis Hamonic’s steadying influence on Hughes, the young franchise defender actually measured worse when paired with Hamonic. When paired with Schmidt, however, Hughes’ numbers improved across the board.
In fact, Hughes’ expected goals rate and share of high-danger scoring chances were lower than the team average when he was on the ice without Schmidt, but well over and above when Schmidt was on his right.
Maybe that’s a pairing that should see more ice-time together in 2021/22, because that’s what seems to bring out the best in who — on paper anyway — should be the Canucks top two defenders.
We’ve gone all this way without mentioning any intangibles, but only because we believe in saving the best for last. Whatever one thinks of Schmidt’s on-ice performance, one has to respect the good-natured and kind-natured vibes he brought to an undeniably sad season. Schmidt was a fan and team favourite right from his first mic’d up session, and he could still be heard well into May doing his best to keep his teammates’ spirits high when, realistically speaking, they had no reason to be.
Schmidt’s role as a fount of positivity is one that will never show up on a stat sheet, but is nonetheless important to the cohesiveness and camaraderie of a team — and that, over time, should make a difference in the long-term picture for this franchise.
That’s the real Schmidt right there.