When the Vancouver Canucks acquired Nate Schmidt from the Vegas Golden Knights for a third-round pick last October, they were hoping to offset the loss of Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher and bolster their right side defence with a player capable of controlling play regardless of who he’s matched up against.
Despite a shaky start for the Canucks’ defence corps as a whole, Schmidt has performed well. He hasn’t been outstanding by any means and is only slightly above league average on a team that is leaking goals left and right, but his overall impact has been positive. He’s kept himself above water while the rest of the team has been drowning in shots and chances against.
Before conducting any analysis on Schmidt’s impact so far, it’s important to consider the Minnesota native’s strengths and weaknesses prior to joining the Canucks to provide some context into what our expectations should be. According to data tracked by Corey Sznajder, in his three years with Vegas, Schmidt was an elite-level transition defenceman whose controlled entry and exit rates consistently topped the 85th-90th percentile.
With the puck, Schmidt helped his team exit the defensive zone and enter the offensive zone at an elite rate. However, without the puck, Schmidt struggled to defend in transition against opposing controlled entries.
His presence on the blue line has been a welcome addition for Canucks fans, who endured watching their team in the bubble consistently get pinned in their own zone only to go glass-and-out before watching the puck come right back in again. He has also shown an ability to play on both sides, and despite Travis Green’s affinity to playing his defenders on their strong sides, this optionality has given the Canucks additional flexibility to account for in-game adjustments and injuries.
Nate Schmidt’s boxcar stats have been underwhelming thus far, as he’s only chipped in with a goal and two assists in 14 games to start the season while averaging 21:20 in ice-time. Despite his pedestrian counting numbers, however, Schmidt has been one of Vancouver’s best defencemen from an underlying, advanced metrics standpoint. If we take a look at each of the Canucks’ defencemen (excluding Brogan Rafferty due to limited sample size) on a Corsi, Fenwick, Shots, and xG basis, Schmidt stands out as the best performer in each of these categories (he’s slightly edged out by Alex Edler in xGF%).
Via Natural Stat Trick
That Schmidt is a leader in each of these categories despite only hovering near 50% is more of a testament to the overall poor start to the campaign by the Canucks than anything else. Ideally, you’d like to see your top 4 defensemen all post stronger underlying metrics that fall above the 50% mark, as anything above that represents your team controlling a greater share of that specific category compared to your opponent.
Of course, it’s also important to take deployment into account. The chart below shows Schmidt’s deployment and provides critical context in terms of teammates and competition every time Schmidt steps over the boards.
As we can see, Schmidt’s matchup difficulty level generally falls in line with the league average. However, he shares the ice with his team’s first line far less than that of the league average, which is undoubtedly a result of Travis Green’s preference to deploy Quinn Hughes with the Lotto Line in most instances. This means that he’s taking to the ice with lower quality teammates, on average, despite facing average levels of difficulty in terms of opposition. The fact that Schmidt is able to post strong numbers despite this type of deployment is a testament to his ability to control the play regardless of the quality of teammates that are playing with him.
Another important aspect of deployment to consider is zone starts. Most of a player’s shifts will begin on the fly over the course of a game, but those who are consistently starting in the offensive end after stoppages are at a distinct advantage of posting “better” shot controlling metrics.
Via Natural Stat Trick
Here, we can see that Schmidt starts roughly a third of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is third-to-last on the Canucks. Again, we see that Schmidt doesn’t necessarily have the starting territorial advantage that some other Canucks defenders benefit from.
The takeaway here is that Schmidt has been posting the best underlying shot control metrics out of all Canucks defensemen despite not having the benefit of being deployed in a way that might skew the data in his favour.
Impact on Transition Play – Entries and Exits
Nate Schmidt’s aforementioned transition play has been one of the staples of his game since he entered the NHL, so how has he fared this season compared to his previous self? Based on data tracked by Corey Sznajder, Schmidt has improved his play when it comes to entries and entry defence but has seen his ability to exit the defensive zone in a controlled manner falter a bit. It’s important to keep in mind that this data is based on a relatively small sample size (Corey has tracked 81.45 minutes for Schmidt at 5-on-5 so far this season, or about 27% of his ice time), but it’s an important indication of how his transition play has fared nevertheless.
It’s encouraging to see that Schmidt has improved his entry defence, as it’s an area of the game you would expect someone with his gap control and skating abilities to be able accomplish at a fairly proficient rate. He’s also helping his team enter the offensive zone at a rate significantly higher than during his time with Vegas. We don’t have the percentile stats for this year’s transition figures yet, but you can bet that Schmidt’s controlled entry abilities fall comfortably above the 90th percentile across the league. However, Schmidt hasn’t been as successful as he has been previously when it comes to controlled exits, as he has been guilty of a few costly giveaways and actually leads the team in turnovers with 14, according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s a part of the game that the team as a whole has been guilty of far too often this season, and it’s a category nobody wants to lead, especially for a player renowned for his transition abilities like Schmidt.
In isolation, comparing Schmidt to his trailing three-year career average can only tell us so much. After all, he was playing on a completely different team and system prior to this season. When compared to his fellow Canucks defencemen this season, however, Schmidt still stands out.
Again, limited sample size is a factor, but Schmidt remains one of the Canucks’ strongest defenders in transition. When turning to the eye test, we can see a few examples of what Schmidt brings to the team as well as areas he might be able to improve on.
In the clip above, we see the Canadiens trying to enter the zone through Tomas Tatar, who flips the puck in for Schmidt to chase. In this scenario, the easy play is to swat the bouncing puck over to your defensive partner or rim it up the wall to your winger.
Instead, Schmidt takes a quick look at Myers once he corrals the puck, realizes there is another Montreal forechecker fairly tight on his defence partner, and quickly makes a sharp turn to the right to shake off Tatar before dishing to Roussel, who gives it to Pearson for a clean, controlled exit. It’s plays like these that the Canucks were looking for in Schmidt, and the more he’s able to help the Canucks in this regard, the better.
The next clip shows Schmidt defending against an attempted entry, which was highlighted as one of his weaknesses coming into this season.
In the clip, the Leafs have broken out of their own zone through a pass to Ilya Mikheyev, who drives wide on Schmidt. As Mikheyev crosses the blue line, Schmidt is in a good position, and with Morgan Reilly stationed on the far side covered by Myers, the Leafs winger doesn’t have many options. Initially, Schmidt positions well to keep Mikheyev to the outside, as seen in the screen capture below.
As Mikheyev drives wide, however, Schmidt is late to react and pivots away from the winger rather than choosing to close the gap with his body, as seen below.
This eventually allows Mikheyev to continue to the goal line unimpeded before he shakes off Schmidt with a quick turn and releases a quick centering pass into the slot. Luckily for Schmidt, the pass went straight to a Canuck, but it’s a situation that was entirely avoidable if he’s better able to contain Mikheyev by cutting him off at the outset as he’s entering the zone.
If the above situation feels familiar, you’re probably not alone. The Canucks as a whole have been allowing the opposing team to gain the Canucks’ defensive end far too easily. Obviously, this is far from an isolated problem with Schmidt himself, as all five players on the ice have a role to play in an entry denial (ideally, your forwards can set up an effective forecheck to deny any entry attempt at all), but it’s up to guys like Schmidt who have the necessary mobility to thwart these entries to lead the way.
How do Schmidt’s teammates fare with and without him?
One way to analyze a player’s impact on his teammates is utilizing with and without data. At the end of the day, we want to understand if Schmidt can improve the play driving abilities of those he takes the ice with to gain a better understanding of the value he brings.
Via Natural Stat Trick
At 5-on-5, Schmidt’s most common partners have been Tyler Myers and Alex Edler, both of whom have fared better on a Corsi basis when playing with Schmidt. Nolan Baumgartner has kept his defence pairs relatively stable outside of forced changes through injury, and at this point in the season, there isn’t enough data to conclude Schmidt’s effect on each of Vancouver’s defencemen outside of his main partners. What’s clear from this graphic, however, is that between Myers and Edler, both have benefited greatly from playing with Schmidt.
From the team perspective as a whole, we can see from the chart below that the Canucks’ offence is about 4% more potent at evens with Schmidt on the ice when using xG/60, no doubt due to his zone entry abilities and strong skills in the offensive zone once he enters. In the 404 minutes that the Canucks have played without Schmidt, their xG/60 drops to 5% below league average.
At the other end of the ice, however, the Canucks are more permissive with him on the ice compared to the league average. That’s not a good look at first glance, but if we compare that to the Canucks’ defence without him, we see that the team is conceding 29% more xG/60 relative to the league average.
Again, this is more of a testament to the Canucks’ leaky defensive start than anything else. Schmidt isn’t necessarily known for his in-zone defensive skills, as he’s a defenceman that best defends by transporting the puck quickly to avoid a defensive situation at all. Overall, however, it’s clear that the Canucks do benefit from the presence of Schmidt every time he’s on the ice.
Despite his team’s slow start — especially on the defensive side of things — Nate Schmidt has been one of the Canucks’ better performing defenders thus far. He’s not exactly an innocent party when it comes to the team’s overall porous defensive act, but it’s clear from his impact on the ice that Schmidt has been a positive addition.
Ideally, you’d like to see Schmidt chip in with a few more goals and assists for some more tangible offensive results — he’s currently on pace for his lowest point totals since his Washington Capitals days — but that’s in part due to the fact that he’s no longer operating on the first power play unit as he was in Vegas. Overall, however, his ability to control play and transition the puck at a high level has helped mitigate the losses of Tanev and Stecher over the offseason, and his personality and patented “WOOP” calls are no doubt welcome additions to the team and fans alike.