Apr 5, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Boston College Eagles forward Barry Almeida (9) assists a goal by forward Steven Whitney (not pictured) as Minnesota Gophers defenseman Nate Schmidt (29) defends in the first period during the semifinals of the 2012 Frozen Four at Tampa Bay Times Forum. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Gopher Hockey: Schmidt signs with Capitals, Budish next?

Gopher men’s hockey defenseman Nate Schmidt signed a two-year entry level contract with the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League on Tuesday.

The junior St. Cloud, Minn. native played 96 games wearing maroon and gold, notching 74 points and 12 goals along with being named All-WCHA defenseman twice in his career.

Schmidt was instrumental in leading the Gophers to two regulars season titles as one of the country’s highest scoring defensive players.

“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’ … 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.”

On a team full of NHL draftees, Schmidt was an undrafted free agent when he signed with the Capitals. But his play on the ice this year boosted his stock, making him one of the country’s top prospects.

As for teammate Zach Budish, a tweet sent out by Gopher forward Erik Haula earlier on Tuesday suggested that Budish will sign with the Nashville Predators. The tweet has since been deleted from Haula’s timeline.

Congrats to two of the bigger beauties I know @burdish24 @nateschmidt29#roomies #goodluck

The redshirt junior from Edina, Minn. was drafted by the Predators in the second round – 41st overall – in the 2009 draft. He is set to graduate in the spring but has a year of eligibility remaining.

Budish said after the Gophers lost to Yale to end their season this past weekend that he would be returning for one more season as a grad student, but it looks like that may not be happening anymore if Haula’s since-deleted tweet was any indication of his future plans.

Schmidt is the first Gopher to leave the college ranks for the pros, but even if Budish follows, they will likely not be the last to leave the University of Minnesota.

Haula, a draft pick of the Minnesota Wild, who has a year of eligibility remaining, is also likely to bolt for the NHL.

Others likely to make the transition include sophomore Kyle Rau and junior Nate Condon.

Junior Nick Bjugstad of Blaine, Minn. will almost certainly turn pro and could be playing in the NHL within a few weeks.

The center was drafted with the 19th overall pick in 2010 by the Florida Panthers and would have went pro last year had the lockout not happened.

Defenseman Seth Helgeson could also be back on the ice very soon as the 114th overall pick in 2009 by the New Jersey Devils wraps up his senior year.

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