How will Schmidt suspension affect Vegas Golden Knights?

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Earlier today, the NHL announced a 20-game suspension for Nate Schmidt, a decision that both the player and team disagreed with.

Schmidt’s strongly worded statement indicates that the sides have already gone through the appeal process, so barring any other twists, it seems like he’ll be suspended through the first 20 games of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2018-19 season.

The Golden Knights – and everyone else involved – stated that they won’t have any further comments regarding the suspension itself, but what about how the team will deal with the loss of Schmidt? Because, as much as Vegas’ defense succeeded – to some extent – by committee, the former Capitals defenseman topped Vegas in time on ice during both the regular season and playoffs. He is, to put it mildly, very important, and losing him for about a quarter of the campaign hurts.

We might get more insight on how reigning Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant will handle the loss (and if reigning GM of the Year George McPhee might also react), so stay tuned at PHT. That said, for those who want some early insight into the impact of this loss, let’s consider multiple factors.

Golden Knights lose a go-to guy

Schmidt averaged 22:14 TOI during 76 regular-season games, then saw his ice time climb to 24:25 per night during the playoffs. Again, both of those averages topped all Golden Knights skaters, with the regular season margin being healthy at about two minutes per game (Shea Theodore came in second with a 20:21 average, with Deryk Engelland right behind him at 20:17), a margin that was similar – yet more pronounced – during the postseason (Theodore averaged 21:48, Engelland at 21:40).

So, while Schmidt didn’t average the bonkers ice time of a Ryan Suter during the regular season, he clearly was the No. 1 guy in Gallant’s eyes. With 2:13 shorthanded TOI and 2:25 on the power play during the playoffs and comparable special teams numbers during the regular season, Schmidt was used as an all-situations guy.

(Schmidt’s most common even-strength defensive partner was Brayden McNabb, according to Natural Stat Trick.)

Beyond Schmidt, Theodore and Colin Miller were logging plenty of time on the man advantage, while Engelland and McNabb were steady penalty killers. Schmidt bridged the gap between those two specialists, in a way, so Vegas loses versatility first and foremost.

Who might step up? Should Vegas dip into the market?

Those previous numbers imply that, possibly, Schmidt’s minutes might just be dispersed between Miller, Engelland, Theodore, and McNabb. Gallant might just lean on all four evenly in their specialized roles. That seemed to be the case during four games in early March when Schmidt was out of the lineup; yes, that’s a small sample size, but Schmidt played in 76 of 82 games.

[These bans are rare, but here are three recent histories of such suspensions]

If those four players can mostly match their work from 2017-18, that’s not the most dire scenario. As with sports, you might expect slippage; after all, Engelland’s generally solid work came as a surprise, while Miller and McNabb are now enjoying the security of long-term deals. (Theodore, meanwhile, still needs a deal as an RFA and probably opened a champagne bottle after seeing Noah Hanifin get paid.)

Vegas didn’t see those key guys leave in free agency, but they didn’t exactly break the bank for reinforcements on defense, either. Nick Holden, 31, is the most noteworthy addition, while they got rid of fading veterans Luca Sbisa and Jason Garrison.

Holden stands as a modest upgrade over some of the lowest-end guys, but probably not much more than that.

It makes you wonder if maybe McPhee should consider bringing in some additional depth. No, there aren’t a ton of promising options on the UFA defensemen market, but Cody Franson seems like a low-risk, OK-reward signing, one who could make sense as a bottom-pairing guy or injury insurance even after Schmidt’s suspension ends.

Those 20 games

It doesn’t hurt to glance at Vegas’ opening schedule and try to gauge how difficult life will be. Take a look at the first 20 games of the 2018-19 season (four of which air on NBCSN):

Thu, Oct 4 vs Philadelphia
Sat, Oct 6 @ Minnesota
Mon, Oct 8 @ Buffalo
Wed, Oct 10 @ Washington
Thu, Oct 11 @ Pittsburgh
Sat, Oct 13 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 16 vs Buffalo
Sat, Oct 20 vs Anaheim
Wed, Oct 24 vs Vancouver
Fri, Oct 26 vs Tampa Bay
Sun, Oct 28 vs Ottawa
Tue, Oct 30 @ Nashville
Thu, Nov 1 @ St. Louis
Sat, Nov 3 vs Carolina
Tue, Nov 6 @ Toronto
Thu, Nov 8 @ Ottawa
Sat, Nov 10 @ Montreal
Sun, Nov 11 @ Boston
Wed, Nov 14 vs Anaheim
Fri, Nov 16 vs St. Louis

The Golden Knights may end up missing Schmidt most during that early five-game road trip, along with that stretch of six of seven games away from home spanning Oct. 30 – Nov. 11.

It’s not all bad, though. There are only two back-to-back sets, and while they have fewer home (nine) than road (11) games, it’s not by an enormous margin. Vegas has a decent shot to navigate that quarter-season without its ice time leader from 2017-18.

Contract year uncertainty for Schmidt

Schmidt was already coming into 2018-19 on a cheap deal, as his cap hit is just $2.25 million with a $2.3M salary. Now he’s expected to lose almost $500K (via TSN’s Frank Seravalli), and the biggest cost might be how this situation affects his next contract.

With a nice 36-point output and top pair duty, Schmidt already raised his standing in the NHL, and it seemed like he might join Ryan Ellis and other defensemen cashing in before they hit 2019 free agency. Schmidt loses out on 20 games to cement his status as a top-pairing defenseman, possibly even increasing his standing in the eyes of NHL executives.

Now, who knows? It’s a disappointing situation for the defenseman, to put things mildly.

***

While there have been other 20-game suspensions for performance-enhancing substances, every other instance was a player who wasn’t a significant part of a team (with all apologies to 2015-16 Shawn Horcoff).

The Golden Knights were already facing a serious challenge in showing that their incredible first season in the NHL wasn’t a fluke. Their second season hasn’t even begun and they’ve already lost Schmidt, their leading defenseman from last season, for 20 games.

How will Vegas adjust, and how will Schmidt perform once his suspension is over? Those are fascinating questions, and serious hurdles for the player and team.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.