KENNEWICK -- When Jim Hiller sat down last summer and looked at his roster for the upcoming season, the Tri-City Americans coach knew one thing -- Tyler Schmidt and Zach Yuen would make a good pairing on the blue line.
"Schmitty was well established in the league as a top defender, so we had to think who was going to play with him," Hiller said. "With the way Zach finished off the last part of last year, it wasn't a difficult decision to know they could balance each other against top lines."
Schmidt, an overage defenseman who has spent his entire career with Tri-City, said he has enjoyed being paired with Yuen, who is in his second year with the team.
"I talked to coach over the summer, and he told me that me and Zach would be put together," Schmidt said. "It took a few practices and games to adjust, but we've done well from there. It's easy when you play with good players. You saw his improvement start in the second half of last year, and it's continued into this year."
Said Yuen: "We're a good combination out there. For the most part, I know what he's going to do. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I have a guy like Schmitty backing me up."
Schmidt and Yuen will get a workout tonight when the Edmonton Oil Kings (24-24-0-3, 51 points) roll into town for their lone game this season against the Americans (31-13-2-1, 65 points).
"They are a competitive team," Hiller said of the Oil Kings, who beat Seattle 4-2 on Tuesday night. "They are much improved. They will be a handful."
So are Schmidt and Yuen. They have helped the Americans limit opponents to 2.95 goals per game while chipping in their own points. Tri-City is one of the highest scoring teams in the league at 4.25 goals per game.
"We play our best every game, and hopefully teams can't figure us out," Schmidt said. "We are coming out and playing hard every night and giving ourselves a chance to win."
Even though Hiller put the duo together, he said he can't take credit for their success.
"Both of them have had a really good year," Hiller said. "Zach has had to play on the left side, which isn't easy. He's a right-side guy, but credit to him for playing on that off side. It's more difficult. Give Schmitty credit -- he has played a lot of minutes in the league and has been a good mentor to Zach."
Schmidt, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Winnipeg, Manitoba, leads the Tri-City defensemen with seven goals and 33 points. He also sports a plus-20 rating, runs point on the power play and works his fair share of shifts on the penalty kill.
"Every player wants to be a power-play guy," Schmidt said. "That's where the points are scored. It feels good that the team wants me there. The plus-20 feels good. It's better to be there than in the negative."
And he has tried to do his part in staying out of the penalty box. He's up to 99 penalty minutes, but it easily could have been more.
"I'd rather be on the ice than in the penalty box," Schmidt said. "When you play lots of minutes, you can't do that."
Yuen (6-0, 205), from Vancouver, British Columbia, leads the team with a plus-28 rating and has five goals and 18 assists. He also is a stalwart on the penalty kill.
"I got used to the responsibility in the second half last year, and that has helped me this year," Yuen said. "The penalty kill is hard work. Guys take a lot of pride in that."
With special teams and regular shifts, Schmidt and Yuen log a lot of ice time. Hiller, for one, appreciates their efforts.
"Those are hard minutes," Hiller said. "You always wonder about playing them too much, but Schmitty is a veteran player -- an efficient player. Zach is learning that. Zach defends with a lot of intensity in the corners. He's in good shape, and he takes care of himself."
Also chiming in with appreciation is starting goaltender Drew Owsley, whose 2.71 goals against average is among the top five in the league.
"They help me out a lot," Owsley said. "They get matched up against top lines and do a good job shutting them down. To see them out there is a good feeling."