Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer got a phone call in his apartment in Italy last summer — just days before the NHL’s expansion draft. It was his friend, then-Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt.
At the time, the two were seen as the most likely candidates from the Capitals to be selected by the upstart Vegas Golden Knights. Only one would be taken, so Grubauer and Schmidt kept in touch — asking each other if they had heard anything.
This time, there was actual news.
“Hey, I just talked to them, they’re going to pick me,” Schmidt said, according to Grubauer. “So you can enjoy the rest of the summer.”
The early tip-off was a favor to Grubauer, who kept the secret guarded. Not even the Capitals knew ahead of time.
“It was nice of him,” Grubauer said.
But Schmidt — considered a promising young defenseman for the Capitals — went on to become a bona fide star for the Golden Knights. With the Stanley Cup Final tied at 1 apiece, Schmidt returns to Capital One Arena for Saturday’s Game 3 and Monday’s Game 4 to take on his former team.
In the playoffs, Schmidt is averaging 24:32 of ice time. Valued for his speed and skating ability, the Knights have regularly matched him up against Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov during the series.
At media day for the Cup final, the 26-year-old told reporters, “I don’t know if you could have written this up any better.”
“Who could’ve scripted this at the expansion draft last year?” Schmidt said. “I don’t think anybody could’ve. It’s pretty special where both teams are. The proposed window to come back open in Washington and then for us to be here as an expansion.”
Schmidt might be viewed by some fans as “the one who got away,” but the league’s expansion format made it difficult for the Capitals to keep him.
Of their players under contract, teams could only protect eight skaters and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender. Pending unrestricted free agents, like T.J. Oshie, could not be drafted or protected.
Washington, because of its depth, went the “seven forwards” route. And of the team’s defensemen, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson were locks to be protected.
Still, the loss of Schmidt hurt, given he would have played a top-four role this season. Washington lost two defensemen, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, in free agency.
With the Capitals, Schmidt had made strides since being first promoted in 2013-14.
“We had just got him to the point, development-wise, where he was going to expand his role and we, unfortunately, had to lose him,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We were in a tough situation where we were going to lose someone we liked.”
Still, Washington made a last-ditch effort to keep him.
For each selection, Vegas (and former Capitals) general manager George McPhee allowed teams to either buy back the player for additional assets or compensation.
But McPhee, MacLellan’s close friend and college roommate, didn’t offer a friendly discount when the Capitals inquired about getting Schmidt back.
“We overreached on the ask,” McPhee said.
“He wasn’t giving in on anything,” MacLellan said.
So why did the Golden Knights take Schmidt over Grubauer? The Knights needed both a top defenseman and a goalie — but goalies were more plentiful. Despite McPhee’s familiarity with Grubauer, Vegas decided to go after Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
Schmidt, meanwhile, said it was a little “bittersweet” to be taken in the expansion draft, though added he has enjoyed his new opportunity.
“We all could start over,” Schmidt said. “The perception of your game could be remodeled and redone. That’s the coolest part of what we’ve been able to do in Vegas.”