(NBC)–Nate Schmidt strolls into the locker room after practice, almost bouncing with each step, offering a smile and fist bump to anyone he passes on the way to his stall in the back right corner.
“Always smiling, that kid,” defenseman Mike Green recently remarked, a grin creeping across his face.
It’s an infectious positivity that has characterized the 23-year-old since childhood. That sunny disposition has cheered up teammates and once prompted former Hershey Bears coach Mike Haviland to offer a friendly reminder to separate his pleasant off-ice personality from a fiercer attitude on it, something Schmidt is just now getting the hang of.
“I just enjoy the little things,” Schmidt said earlier this week. “Just coming to the rink, being up here, playing in Washington. I enjoy that. But it doesn’t change if I go somewhere else. I just like to have a very positive outlook on everything, so I try to stay positive around the guys. And it’s contagious too.
“When you are positive, it kind of comes full circle, maybe you bring someone else along who maybe brings someone else along. If you bring the right vibes to the rink or you bring the right vibes to your life, it makes a big difference, I think.”
Schmidt, as is his wont, is just happy to be here, but he earned his place on the Capitals’ opening-night roster after an impressive preseason. Signed as an undrafted free agent from the University of Minnesota in April 2013, he appeared in 29 games last season as one of four Capitals defensemen to make their NHL debuts, a product of Washington’s dubious defensive depth.
Such an opportunity became significantly less replicable this summer. Displeased with the flimsy blue line, new general manager Brian MacLellan lured veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to Washington from the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 1 for a combined cost of nearly $68 million.
With Dmitry Orlov, the presumptive sixth defenseman, recovering from offseason wrist surgery, there was realistically one spot up for grabs come training camp.
“For me, it actually kind of made me work that much harder,” Schmidt said, recalling his initial reaction to the free-agent signings. “I thought to myself like I really need to make an impression. Otherwise, I’ll be just another one of those young guys that are grouped together. With a new staff, they didn’t know much about us because there was such a limited viewing for all of us, so I thought there was something that really needed to step out to try and separate myself from the rest of the young guys.”
“I had nothing to lose. The expectation was probably I was supposed to start in Hershey, but if I come in and play well, maybe I get a chance.”
So Schmidt overhauled his offseason training regimen. He began to run less and skate more, honing his signature skating ability and building lower-body strength. He revamped his diet, significantly reducing his body fat percentage. Last month, he arrived in Arlington prepared to impress.
“The thing that jumps out at you is his ability to skate,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who was familiar with Schmidt prior to either of them joining the Capitals organization through scouting. “He’s an elite skater at all levels of hockey, but you can definitely notice it at the National Hockey League level as well. He clearly made a different commitment in the summer to his off-ice training. He’s much stronger in down-low battles and his compete level is at a higher level than the games I watched from last year.”
Schmidt skated 13:14 in Washington’s season-opening shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens last Thursday, but even more of an affirmation of the Capitals’ faith in him came two days later. With Green making his season debut against the Boston Bruins after an upper-body injury held him out of the opener, coach Barry Trotz kept Schmidt in the lineup over veteran Jack Hillen.
“He’s really gotten better and played really well,” Trotz said. “He’s turned some really good situations into good offense. His transitional game is really good and he’s such a strong skater.
“I just felt confidence-wise, Nate was in a good place.”
Schmidt will tell you the same thing. It no longer unsettles him to be living at the team hotel next door to the practice facility. He doesn’t peruse and parse his teammates’ statistics looking for proof of some sort of edge anymore.
With Orlov eligible to return early next month, Schmidt, who is waiver-exempt, may be the most logical corresponding roster move. At the very least, he can make that decision a difficult one.
“I was so nervous about every little thing that happened,” Schmidt said. “This year, my experience has showed me that things will happen, you create your own luck and you determine your own destiny with how you play.”
He then crosses the street toward his hotel, a spring in his step and a smile on his face.