The Winnipeg Jets have not only upgraded their blue line significantly in the past 24 to 48 hours with the additions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt via separate trades with Washington and Vancouver.
If the first Zoom calls with the newest team members are any indication, the Jets have also injected a heavy dose of personality and charisma into their midst along with just under US$10 million to their payroll.
Schmidt spoke with the media for the first time on Wednesday after being acquired for a 2022 third-round draft pick the night before from the Canucks. And he quickly addressed reports he had refused to be dealt to Winnipeg — previously and on Monday of this week.
“I was never asked or talked to last year about a trade to Winnipeg. There was never a conversation about, hey, would you waive to go to Winnipeg and I said no to,” Schmidt said when asked if he needed convincing to become a Jet. “And for this one, I want to say it was kind of the same thing. On Monday, a lot of things were coming in. And I just said, ‘I need a day just to talk to guys and get a feel for everything.'”
Schmidt, speaking from his home in St. Cloud, Minn., said he used that 24 hours to cut down some trees and clear some paths on his property — and to clear his head. One of those conversations he had was with Winnipegger and former Golden Knights teammate Cody Eakin. There was also a report Paul Stastny, who played with him in Vegas for two seasons, had picked up the phone to sell Schmidt on accepting the trade.
“Paul and I had a real good relationship in the last couple of years. I still stayed in touch with him this last year,” said Schmidt. “He’s an awesome guy, a straight shooter. He said you get treated really well, the staff and the guys and the organization; they do a really good job with players and when you’re here, you see a tight group from top to bottom, which is awesome.”
The recently turned 30-year-old blue liner is the first one to admit that his one and only season in Vancouver — for a variety of reasons — did not bring out the best hockey of his career. And while a lengthy COVID-19 outbreak that shut down the team for 24 straight days from late March to mid-April was a factor, Schmidt took ownership for a sometimes inconsistent campaign that produced five goals, 10 assists and a career-worst minus-7 ranking in 54 games played.
“I didn’t have my feet moving as much as I have in the years past, getting up into the play and being more in your face defensively,” admitted Schmidt. “How our style is here, I think I’m going to suit me to get myself to be more up in the play defensively, closer to guys and check with your feet a little bit more.”
It’s a bit of a mystery as to how Jets head coach Paul Maurice and assistant Charlie Huddy will employ the defensive pairings when training camp starts in late September, but Schmidt likes what he sees on a depth chart that includes Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Brenden Dillon and himself, as well as Logan Stanley and Ville Heinola.
“It’s a really cool thing to be able to see how much this D corps has changed in the last 24-48 hours,” said Schmidt. “Actually just spoke to Brenden Dillon today. He got a lot of rave reviews from a lot of his former teammates so I was excited to see a guy that’s rough and tumble, hard to play against.”
One of the many assets Schmidt brings to the table is the ability to play on either side of the ice. So even though he’s a left shot, he’s comfortable on his off side. And he says that pretty much started out of necessity when he was breaking into the NHL with the Washington Capitals after signing as an undrafted free agent following his junior year at the University of Minnesota.
“Brooks Orpik was playing the left side and wasn’t moving. So it was like, ‘Hey, can you play the right side?’ And it was, ‘Yup, sounds good. Whatever it takes to get me in the lineup,'” recalled Schmidt. “It’s a little harder on some breakout passes, but usually it’s easier to play on D because your stick is to the outside and you don’t have to cross your feet or your body over.”
If there is one thing Schmidt is looking forward to this coming season, it’s the anticipated return of fans in the stands at Canada Life Centre, because playing in empty arenas during this past pandemic season more or less sucked the life out of an individual who wears his heart on his sleeve.
“I don’t know if I could last, doing what we did last year, and the year before,” Schmidt said, referring to the 2020 playoffs in the Edmonton bubble. “I think us as players, everyone feeds off the energy. You just soak it in and feel that vibe from your group. You know, sometimes in a smaller building you can really trap that energy and trap that noise.”
Schmidt says he can still remember the atmosphere in Winnipeg from the 2018 Western Conference final, when he was with Vegas. And he believes the moves the Jets have made can put the team back into the final four conversation — and beyond.
“That’s what you want as a player: come to a great team, great group of forwards, a fantastic goaltender, and now our defence is looking like — in my opinion — a defence that can go help you win, and go help you win the whole thing”