After taking a year off, the yearly Dinkytown ritual known as Gopher hockey players leaving early is returning with junior defenseman Nate Schmidt leading the way.
Schmidt, an undrafted 6'0", 195 lbs defenseman who led the Minnesota blue line in scoring the last two seasons, has signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals.
"I wouldn't trade my experience at the University of Minnesota for anything, and I am incredibly grateful to the team and staff for three great seasons at the ‘U,' Schmidt said in a statement released by the school. "This wasn't an easy decision to make, but it is the right decision, and I am looking forward to beginning the next chapter of my playing career."
The former St. Cloud Cathedral (MN-HS) standout had a rough start to his college career. Schmidt was frequently scratched and in some of his 13 games spent time as a forward. Despite that, he continued to work out and improve on his defensive game during the off-season.
It paid off the next year when Nate scored 42 points (4G-38A) and was named an all-WCHA defenseman. His growth coincided with the Gophers' return to prominence with a Frozen Four trip. This year, Schmidt scored 32 points (9G-23A) while Minnesota won their second straight MacNaughton Cup.
With Washington, a team whose prospect development camp Nate participated with last year, Schmidt gets a chance to make an impact at the pro level. His two-year deal begins this season (rather than held off a year like most undrafted signings) so burning a year off makes it easier for the 21 year-old to reach a second contract.
"He has a great opportunity with Washington and I want to wish him the best as he turns pro and thank him for his contributions to Gopher hockey," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said.
Multiple attempts to find out where Schmidt would be placed were unreturned. Regardless, he will practice with the Capitals on Wednesday at Kettler.
Nate also joins an organization full of former University of Minnesota players. Four former Gophers are in Hershey (the Capitals' AHL affiliate).
Who else will leave from the Gophers remains to be seen. Minnesota junior forward Erik Haula tweeted congratulations to both Schmidt and redshirt junior captain Zach Budish. He has since deleted the tweet, though.
Budish, a second round pick in 2009, has his draft rights owned by the Nashville Predators.
In addition to Budish, two other players rumored to leave are Haula, a Minnesota Wild draft pick in 2009, and junior Nick Bjugstad, a first round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2010.
All stayed last year for another chance to win a national championship. However, that dream ended Friday when the Gophers were upset by Yale 3-2 in overtime.
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You can follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.