The difference in the Vegas Golden Knights with and without Nate Schmidt is startling

Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt has been a catalyst to the team’s turnaround after a slow start, and has become one of the NHL’s elite players.

Nate Schmidt’s name was the last one announced during the NHL Expansion draft in 2017, and it caused next-to-no reaction among the faithful at T-Mobile Arena. The Golden Knights fans who showed up in Las Vegas on June 21, 2017, to see the formation of the NHL’s newest franchise, were still in a frenzy over the selection of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury when Schmidt’s name was announced.

Few expected much out of the Golden Knights and fewer expected much out of Schmidt.

A strange thing has happened, though: Schmidt morphed into one of the best defensemen in the NHL and is among the league’s most valuable players this season, the Knights’ second season of existence.

Schmidt was suspended for 20 games at the start of the season, though details of what he tested positive for were never announced. But his agent used the one grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool defense when the suspension became public, which later was the explanation UFC officials gave when they backed Jon Jones to fight at UFC 232 despite an abnormal drug test.

With Schmidt out the first 20 games, the Knights went 8-11-1 and had 17 points. It was a .425 winning percentage and put them on pace for 69 points. To be fair, Schmidt wasn’t the only player missing. Right wing Alex Tuch, who has developed into the team’s finest forward, was injured and missed the first eight games.

The team’s performance visibly improved the day that Schmidt reentered the lineup. The Knights have played 25 games since Schmidt returned and have earned 39 points. That’s a .780 winning percentage, which translated over an 82-game season projects to be 126 points.

That’s quite a difference.

When general manager George McPhee put together his defense, he made a point of landing Schmidt, whom he had signed in Washington as a collegiate free agent, even though he could have taken highly regarded goaltender Philipp Grubauer.

Schmidt has repaid McPhee’s confidence by becoming a No. 1 defenseman. He’s one of the best skating defenders in the league, and via his work with assistant coach Ryan McGill, has become an exceptional defender. He makes a great first pass, but he’s rarely out of position and has an active stick that foils many opposing rushes.

Because of the suspension, he won’t get consideration for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, or for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. But he should be in the running for both.

Now, I’m not saying he should win, and there is a strong argument that can be made Fleury, not Schmidt, is the Knights’ most indispensible and most valuable player. But the Knights survived Fleury’s 25-game absence quite nicely last year when he was out with a concussion. They looked like an expansion team in the first 20 games this year without Schmidt.

Better for the Knights is his contract. He’s making $2.25 million this year and then next year begins a six-year deal in which he’ll make $5.95 million a season. That’s a steal — a flat-out steal — for the Knights given what he does for the team. He plays in all situations and averages over 22 minutes a game. Other elite defensemen make nearly twice as much, or more than twice as much.

Drew Doughty signed an eight-year, $88 million contract extension in the summer with the Kings that kicks in next year, giving him a cap hit of $11 million a year through the 2026-2027 season.

John Carlson, Schmidt’s former teammate with the Washington Capitals, signed a new deal with the Caps in the summer that has a cap hit of $8 million a year through 2026.

Doughty and Carlson are excellent players, but Schmidt is in their class as a player while counting millions per season less against the cap then either of them.

Schmidt has also emerged as a great leader on the team, and his easy-going, fun-loving personality has lightened the mood and enabled his teammates to play with less stress and pressure.

He’s not going to win either the Norris or the Hart, but there have been crazier suggestions.

Schmidt is emerging into a superstar and is a big reason the Golden Knights have a legitimate chance to repeat as Western Conference champions. He deserves the recognition that other players of that caliber routinely receive.

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