Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pest-man Schwartz typically finds a way

Blues' left wing may be one of NHL's more persistent puck hunters

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Imagine playing against him, listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. The thought is that at such a small stature, Jaden Schwartz won't put up much resistance.

Think again.

What the opposition has painfully found out time and time again during his short NHL career is that Schwartz is a hunter; he's a predator. He hounds, pesters, prods, pokes and harasses until he gets what he wants: the puck. And in a flash, the Blues are creating a scoring chance after Schwartz picks someone's pocket. If he's not creating a chance, the puck is in the back of your net.

If you choose to encounter Schwartz with the puck, do so at your own risk. It can be dangerous to one's well-being.
(Getty Images)
Jaden Schwartz finished the season second in goals (28) and
third in points (63) for the Blues.

Of course, Schwartz has great skill. One doesn't score 28 goals and add 35 assists in his third full season on luck alone. But Schwartz, the 14th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft -- picked two spots ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko -- doesn't cheat the game. It's all about a relentless pursuit of the vulcanized rubber. And shift after shift, he won't stop until he gets what he wants.

"I think it's something that I've worked on as I've kind of climbed up the ladder in leagues that I've played in," said Schwartz, who began his career with the Notre Dame Hounds of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, then to the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League before going to Colorado College and then the Blues in 2012. "I used to be more of an offensive guy and can rely on skill a little bit more, but as you climb up the ladder, there's a lot more skilled guys around you and a lot of talent so you've got to kind of find a way to push yourself and be able to be that impact player that can make  difference. That's something that I kind of had to do. 

"Being a smaller guy, I'm not going to physically out-battle guys, but as far as stealing the puck and getting on them as fast as I can, I think that's something that 'Hitch' has worked on with me since I got here but something that I kind of focused on."

That "smaller guy," with his persistent pest-like play, makes his linemates better; whether it was Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera earlier this season, to Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie now. They will represent the Blues' top line when the Stanley Cup Playoffs open Thursday when the Blues host the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round.

"He's quick and he's just so hungry," Stastny said of Schwartz. "He doesn't give up and he just constantly wants it, wants it. That's an attribute to him and how hard he's working. He puts the hard work and skill together and that's what makes him a special player.

"It's just creating turnovers. In this game, turnovers happen all the time. It's just a game of mistakes; it's just how you bounce back from it. When you're playing on your toes and you're aggressive, maybe you might get beat here or there, but over the course of time, you're going to put pressure on them, create turnovers and then you get more puck possession. That's what he does a good job of, whether it's off the forecheck or whether it's off a faceoff. That's what the best players out here do, is create a lot of turnovers. Most goals are created off a turnover, whether it's right away or 30 seconds or 40 seconds prior. He gets you the puck back as fast as you can and put the other team on their heels."

That's what Schwartz does, put opponents on their heels. And at times, gives them shock value because of his persistence.

"I think what makes him a good offensive player is that he sneaks up on you," coach Ken Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "When you're playing against him, you can't rest. He's going to catch you from behind a little bit like (Detroit's Pavel) Datsyuk does. He's going to catch you sleeping or resting with the puck and that's where he's got a lot of his offense from. He creates more offense from his checking than anybody on our team and he's probably in the top 10 percent of the guys that do it in the league. I think that's why he's such a good player is because he's just as dangerous defensively as he is offensively. Quite frankly, he's given us even a stronger identity of what we wanted to build here, which is a real good sign. He's been excellent at doing the kind of the dirty work so that people can create offense. It's hard to play against a guy like that. You're never safe, you never can get comfortable, he's always nipping at your heels and if he keeps doing that stuff, it's going to help us."

This is nothing new to Hitchcock, who became Schwartz's coach when the Blues first signed him in 2012. But Hitchcock watched this very same player with Canada at the World Junior Championships in 2011.

"No, I saw it when I watched him," Hitchcock said of Schwartz. "First time I saw him extensively was in the World Juniors. I saw him do it in the world junior and guys were saying he was doing the same thing in college. He's done the same thing in pro here. I saw him as a 19-year-old do it and nothing's changed. It's a good sign."

If opposing players talk about Schwartz in a negative way, it's a good thing in the Blues' eyes. It means they hate him; it means they hate playing against him.
(Getty Images)
Jaden Schwartz (17) battles Calgary's David Schlemko (3) for the puck in
a recent game this season.

It means he's doing his job.

"I don't know about under the skin, but I try to make it hard on them, make sure that they're looking over their shoulder a little bit," Schwartz said. "That's part of my job on the forecheck or checking the puck back. I take pride in that. That's something that I kind of have to do in order to be successful and help this team out. I'm looking to do it even more going into the playoffs."

Some players like to get under one's skin with their physical play in order to gain an edge. Schwartz finds other ways that are equally as successful.

"In order for me to help this team out, that's something I've got to do," Schwartz said. "Basically make it tough on the d-man. I'm not going to really hit a bunch of guys and scare them that way, but I'll try to find other ways to do it."

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