Schmidt evolves into top defenseman

Nate Schmidt is proving his sophomore success wasn’t a fluke.

Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt plays against Minnesota State-Mankato on Nov. 2 at Mariucci Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt plays against Minnesota State-Mankato on Nov. 2 at Mariucci Arena.

Drew Claussen

Nate Schmidt was directly involved in three of the eight goals the Gophers scored last weekend at Colorado College. But that’s no surprise to people who follow the team.

The junior from St. Cloud, Minn., has made a name for himself in college hockey as one of the best playmaking, two-way defensemen in the game.

Watching Schmidt hook up with his teammates for assists has become a common sight over the last season and a half. But it was uncommon his freshman season, when Schmidt rarely played.

During his freshman campaign with the Gophers, Schmidt played in 13 games and scored one point — the same as goaltender Kent Patterson.

“It was tough,” Schmidt said. “The way that everything worked out was just getting the confidence to go out there and do what I knew I could do.”

Fighting through adversity is nothing new for Schmidt. He started playing hockey when he was about 2 years old with people who were far older and bigger than him.

Schmidt played three years of varsity hockey at St. Cloud Cathedral High School, and head coach Eric Johnson called him one of the team’s leaders from the beginning.

“His creativity and his work ethic were his biggest attributes as a young player,” Johnson said. “He has a strong desire to get better. Some kids reach a level, and they think it’s good enough.”

Schmidt made all-state his junior year and was the state’s second-highest scoring defenseman in 2008-09. He was also a prominent player on Cathedral’s baseball team.

Like many players with college hockey aspirations, Schmidt chose to forgo his senior year of high school and play in the United States Hockey League for the Fargo Force.

Johnson said he knew Schmidt “had to do what he had to do,” but he said the team was noticeably different without him.

“The best week of practice we had in his senior year was when he was home from Fargo,” Johnson said. “The intensity level he brings and the energy level he brings every time he’s at an event is huge.”

Even though Schmidt’s departure benefited his career, he said it wasn’t easy to leave Cathedral and all of his friends.

“You leave your senior year behind, which is supposedly the best year of your life, but I had an unbelievable time in Fargo,” he said.

Schmidt played one season with the Force and had 14 goals and 23 assists. He also had six assists in the team’s run to the Clark Cup final.

He was selected to the USHL All-Star team and was named to the USHL All-Rookie team at the season’s end.

Schmidt broke out with the Gophers in his sophomore season, posting numbers he and others saw during his days in St. Cloud and Fargo.

Schmidt’s turnaround coincided with the return of Mike Guentzel to Minnesota’s coaching staff after a brief hiatus. Guentzel serves as the associate head coach to Don Lucia and works prominently with the defense.

“[Guentzel]’s the guy that recruited me here, so getting that familiarity back was really nice,” Schmidt said. “That familiarity and comfort level was really helpful for me.”

As a sophomore, Schmidt played in all 43 games for the Gophers and ranked fourth on the team with 41 points (3 goals, 38 assists).

Schmidt played with discipline and grit. He took only seven minor penalties and blocked a team-high 52 shots. His 38 assists ranked for third in the nation and sixth in the school’s record books.

“I just thought he was good in all situations and in any role you asked him to play,” Guentzel said.

He’s proved this season that his sophomore success wasn’t a mirage.

Schmidt is currently tied for second on the team with 15 points (2 goals, 13 assists) through 17 games.

He’s the pilot of the power play and also makes the plays that don’t appear on paper such as stick lifts.

Guentzel said Schmidt has a calm demeanor as a defenseman running the power play, which has helped him read and react to different penalty kills.

“He’s got a low panic point,” Guentzel said. “He’ll hold it for that extra second where some guys would give it up.”

Off the ice, Schmidt is the Gophers’ biggest personality. Where some athletes seem to tolerate talking to the media, Schmidt seems to revel in it.

Johnson said Schmidt didn’t develop his personality in college.

“I don’t even know if I’ve ever seen him in a bad mood,” Johnson said. “He’s been pissed about maybe not performing well or losing a game or different things like that, but he’s got that kind of infectious positive personality.

“Some people are joking now he’s the little media darling down there in the Twin Cities,” Johnson said. “He’s not doing anything different — he’s just being Nate.”

The Gophers’ locker room is littered with players who have already been drafted by NHL teams, but Schmidt is not one of those players.

“I would think that he’d be a quality free agent candidate,” Guentzel said. “I know there’s people eyeballing him on a regular basis. He’s going to have to continue to show that he’s got the dimensions they’re looking for.”

His high school coach said there’s no telling how far Schmidt’s game can take him.

“He’ll get paid a lot of money to play somewhere someday,” Johnson said.