Schmidt goes pro, others may follow

Nate Schmidt has left the Gophers after his junior season to play for the NHL’s Washington Capitals.

Drew Claussen

Nate Schmidt was one of the few undrafted players on this year’s Gophers squad. On Tuesday, he also became the first underclassman to declare he won’t be wearing maroon and gold next season.

The junior defenseman has signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals, the NHL team announced Tuesday.

Schmidt’s signing with the Capitals could be the first of many departures from the Gophers this offseason.

Seth Helgeson is the only player that will graduate, but juniors Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula, Zach Budish, Nate Condon and others could follow Schmidt’s path.

Haula hinted Tuesday on Twitter that Budish and Schmidt had left the Gophers, posting: “Congrats to two of the bigger beauties I know @Burdish24 @nateschmidt29 #roomies #goodluck.”

The tweet was later removed but sparked controversy about whether Budish has signed with the Nashville Predators, the NHL team that owns his rights.

Schmidt said he hadn’t given much thought to his future after last Friday’s NCAA tournament loss to Yale.

Four days later, his collegiate career is over.

“This wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Schmidt said in a release, “but it is the right decision.”

The St. Cloud, Minn., played in 96 career games for the Gophers and had 12 goals and 62 assists. His turnaround from one point his freshman season to 41 points his sophomore campaign helped Minnesota surprise many with its run to the NCAA Frozen Four last season.

This season, Schmidt was fifth on the team in points with nine goals and 23 assists.

“He had two tremendous years and felt he was ready to take his game to the next level,” Gophers head coach Don Lucia said in the release.

Schmidt was Minnesota’s most reliable defenseman and the pilot of the team’s first power-play unit. He was the Gophers’ lone representative on the All-WCHA First Team this season.

While Schmidt was one of the team’s best players, he was also one of the few who hadn’t been selected in the NHL draft. That freed him to sign with any NHL team.

Schmidt’s signing likely didn’t surprise the Gophers’ coaching staff. Associate head coach Mike Guentzel told the Minnesota Daily in December that he believed Schmidt would be a “quality free agent candidate.”

Schmidt’s signing is the only one that has been confirmed as of Tuesday.