Gophers D Schmidt not done proving himself

MINNEAPOLIS — Nate Schmidt watched on his television as name after name was read during the 2009 NHL Draft. A standout defenseman at St. Cloud Cathedral who scored 25 goals as a junior, Schmidt was about to enter his senior year of high school before playing for the University of Minnesota. Surely, he would be drafted in one of the 211 selections during the draft’s seven rounds, he thought.

But Schmidt’s name was never called. More than three years later, Schmidt remains undrafted, one of 12 players on the Gophers who doesn’t have his rights owned by an NHL team. With the way Schmidt has been playing during his junior season at Minnesota, those NHL teams are likely wondering how they passed up on a guy like this.

After scoring two goals last weekend against St. Cloud — in front of his hometown fans and family, including his grandpa — Schmidt now leads all college hockey defensemen in scoring with 28 points (an average of a point per game). That average also puts him 34th among all players.

Still, Schmidt carries a chip on his shoulder given the distinction he holds of being undrafted.

“It’s one of those things for me that was a growing point in my life,” Schmidt said of the 2009 draft. “It was a growing point in my career as a hockey player to be able to overcome an obstacle like that. As good as it would be to get drafted, I’m even happier now with how things have kind of played out to being an undrafted guy.”

Indeed, things have worked out just fine for Schmidt during his time at Minnesota. As a sophomore last year, Schmidt earned All-WCHA Second Team honors and had 41 points in 43 games. This year, his goal scoring has improved to the point where his eight goals rank sixth on the Gophers and the most among any of the team’s defensemen.

Schmidt carries a four-game goal-scoring streak into this weekend’s series with Wisconsin. As an upperclassmen and one of Minnesota’s more experienced defensemen, Schmidt has learned when to jump up in the play and contribute to the Gophers’ offense. In fact, coach Don Lucia says the 6-foot, 195-pound Schmidt has the green light to shoot whenever he sees fit.

“One of the things I like about Nate’s offensive game is he’s not a guy that takes chances in getting caught up the rink. He’s a guy that does a lot of damage being the second wave and making his play from the blue line to the top of the circle,” Lucia said. “You don’t see him down by the goal line and getting caught out of position or pinching or anything like that trying to create offense. I think he has a great understanding of how he’s going to create offense is joining the rush, not leading the rush.”

Schmidt says he’s continuing to work on being a complete, two-way player, with the defensive part of his game still the primary focus. But there’s no denying his slap shot is a force to be reckoned with.

In Friday’s 4-win over first-place St. Cloud State, Schmidt wound up and ripped a shot from the right circle that Huskies goalie Ryan Faragher never saw. One night later, Schmidt scored a power play goal on another hard slap shot from almost the exact same spot.

Following those two goals, Schmidt has now scored five times in Minnesota’s last six games.

“It’s one of those things I just want to play better every week and try to get better each and every game,” Schmidt said. “The points, they’ll fall where they may. Points kind of come and go throughout the season. There are stretches in the season where you could be playing really well and not get any points or vice versa, you’re not playing very well and you’re still getting some points. I think that for me, I try not to put too much stock into it.”

Like many college hockey players, Schmidt has aspirations of playing in the NHL. First, though, he has other goals in mind while at Minnesota — like a trip to the Frozen Four, perhaps. He’s also one of three Gophers on the ballot for the first phase of the Hobey Baker voting. While Schmidt is a long shot to win the award for college hockey’s best player, his name may garner some attention down the final stretch of the season.

For now, Schmidt will continue to arguably be one of the best undrafted players in college hockey. And he’ll play like a guy hoping to make it to the next level.

“It’s actually kind of played out for the better (being undrafted), just kind of keeping your nose to the grindstone a little bit,” Schmidt said. “Ever since I was playing on the outdoor rinks of St. Cloud, it’s been a dream of mine to play at the highest level possible.” 

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