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November 12, 2018

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Analysis:

What Schmidt’s suspension means for the Golden Knights

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Nate Schmidt quickly emerged as the Golden Knights’ leading blueliner.

The Golden Knights will be without their best defender for the first 20 games of the season.

Nate Schmidt has been suspended for the first 20 games of the season for violating the terms of the NHL/NHL Players Association performance enhancing substances program, the team announced Sunday.

Schmidt posted career highs last season in nearly every statistical category with five goals and 31 assists in the regular season, and three goals and four assists in the playoffs. Schmidt also led all Golden Knights’ skaters in ice time with an average of 22:14.

While Schmidt and the Golden Knights aren’t happy with the suspension length, claiming the illegal substances found in Schmidt’s system were trace amounts due to environmental contamination, they must accept it.

Here’s what the lengthy suspension means for both Schmidt, and the team.

What it means for Schmidt:

Schmidt will miss all seven preseason games, as well as the first 20 regular season games, and won’t be permitted to return to the ice for the Golden Knights until Nov. 18 against the Edmonton Oilers.

During the suspension Schmidt will be allowed to use the Golden Knights’ facilities at City National Arena on his own, but won’t be allowed to participate in team practices. He is permitted to skate on the ice after team activities are over.

As a first-time offender Schmidt could lose approximately $520,000 of his total salary of $2.25 million as he won’t be paid for the time missed due to suspension.

He will also be referred to the NHL/NHL Players Association program for substance abuse to be evaluated and possibly receive treatment. That’s unlikely due to the trace amounts he tested positive for, but second-time offenders receive a 60-game suspension under the collective bargaining agreement.

Schmidt is also set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and this suspension could have a major effect on those negotiations. Schmidt signed a two-year deal worth an average annual value of $2.25 million last offseason following an arbitration hearing. He was set to receive a sizeable raise as the top defenseman on the team, but this suspension could put a damper on that.

What it means for the Golden Knights:

Simply put, the Golden Knights are extremely thin on defense.

The team still hasn’t signed restricted free agent Shea Theodore to a contract, and now will be without its top-pairing defender in Schmidt for the first 20 games.

Schmidt spent almost the entire season on the first pairing alongside Brayden McNabb. As stated earlier, he played a team-high 22:14 of ice time during the regular season, and that increased to 24:25 in the postseason. He had the second-highest defensive point shares on the team at 4.8, behind only McNabb (5.0).

It’s a small sample size because Schmidt only missed six games last year, but the Golden Knights went 2-4-0 last season without Schmidt in the lineup. Their goals against without Schmidt (3.67) was a full goal higher than with him (2.66) and their shots against (31), and scoring chances against (22.67) both went up during the games Schmidt was absent.

It won’t be easy to replace him in the top pairing, and will be even more difficult if Theodore remains unsigned. A young player like Zach Whitecloud, who signed with Vegas as an undrafted college free agent at the end of last season, now has a much better chance of making the roster out of camp. Players like Griffin Reinhart and Jake Bischoff that spent last season in the American Hockey League could also make the jump early in the season.

Brad Hunt and Jon Merrill, who spent large stretches of last season as a healthy scratches, could find much more playing time early on.

Schmidt paired perfectly with McNabb because of his excellent skating ability. He served as the skater and puck mover while McNabb is more plodding and was used for his physicality. If head coach Gerard Gallant wants to keep a similar style on the top pair, Colin Miller could be the guy. Miller is one of the best skaters on the team and recently signed a four-year, $15.5 million deal to make him the highest-paid defenseman on the team.

Theodore would also fill the role of a fast, offensive-minded defensemen, so this development could speed up the negotiations to get him under contract before the season begins.

Schmidt was also amongst the leaders in shorthanded time on ice with 1:53 per game. Nick Holden, who Vegas signed as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, averaged 1:50 of shorthanded time on ice for the Boston Bruins last season and would be a logical fill-in on the penalty kill.

Finally, this story wouldn’t be complete with a mention of the neverending speculation of a trade for Ottawa Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson. While it may seem Schmidt’s suspension makes the Golden Knights more likely to trade for Karlsson, it likely won’t have any effect.

General manager George McPhee is far too savvy to make a knee-jerk reaction and give up more for Karlsson just to salvage the first 20 games of the season. The NHL season is long, and in the grand scheme of things 20 games is insignificant. If the Golden Knights do acquire Karlsson, it would help fill Schmidt’s role as the top-pairing defenseman, but don’t expect McPhee to make the trade solely because of the suspension.

 

Projected pairings at full strength

Nate Schmidt — Brayden McNabb

Shea Theodore — Deryk Engelland

Colin Miller — Nick Holden

 

Projected pairings without Schmidt

Colin Miller — Brayden McNabb

Shea Theodore — Deryk Engelland

Jon Merrill — Nick Holden

 

Projected pairings without Schmidt and Theodore

Colin Miller — Brayden McNabb

Zach Whitecloud — Deryk Engelland

Jon Merrill — Nick Holden

Jesse Granger can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Jesse on Twitter at twitter.com/JesseGranger_.

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