Relentless puck-hunting left wing leading by example with play on ice, feeling
completely healthy, on pace to shatter career highs in goals, assists, points
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When looking at NHL scoring leaders, familiar names typically occupy the list.
They tend to include past and/or present award winners, names that have often been there before, names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, among others.
The latter two are at the top of the leaderboard today, helping the Tampa Bay Lightning to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
But then there's a name that hasn't been there before. He's diminutive in size (listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds), calls himself a "puck hound," the kind of player that drives the opponent nuts.
He'll hound you until you call 'Uncle.' Try to take the puck away from him, good luck; he protects it as well as anyone whether it be using his smallish-stature strength or zig-zagging his way through a phone booth with puck and stick in hand.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Is Jaden Schwartz on the path to stardom? Persistent hard work combined
with early-season scoring have the Blues' left wing on the right path.
And he could care less that he's among the NHL scoring leaders.
Say hello to Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz.
"I don't like to worry about points," Schwartz, who came into Tuesday third in the NHL with 17 points in 13 games on eight goals and nine assists, said. "I don't even worry about how the production is even going to end or where I'm going to be; I have no idea. I don't like worrying about that at all."
For those that know Schwartz, 25, this is what he's about. He won't talk about himself, always casts credit to his teammates and doesn't like the drawn attention
Or does he?
"I think we should get credit because all we do is pump his tires," joked Blues center Paul Stastny. "Ask [Robert] Bortuzzo. I think every day, he says, 'Who has it better than One-Seven?' We keep him loose. He never gets too high or too down."
But this is Jaden Schwartz today, know to his teammates as 'Schwizz': a relentless pursuer of the vulcanized rubber who uses every inch of his body to fend off would-be puck pursuers trying to take away what to him seems like a kid's favorite toy. When the Blues were questioned at the start of the season as to who could pick up the scoring slack other than Vladimir Tarasenko, Schwartz has been front and center, arguably the Blues' best player to date and a big reason why they're off to a terrific 10-2-1 start to a season nobody thought they'd be able to achieve thus far. And in the process, the Blues sit atop not only the Western Conference standings with 21 points but right there side by side with the Lightning with identical records atop the NHL standings.
"I think consistency is something I've really worked on," Schwartz said. "There's times definitely throughout the season where you're feeling it, maybe offensively or you feel like your work ethic is there, but I think right now, just coming into the season, I was ready and prepared and I wanted to have a big role on this team. That was kind of my focus all summer, just building off the end of last year and in the playoffs. We're (13) games into the year."
Thirteen games in. In other words, let's not pump the tires too much. There's a long season ahead.
Even if Schwartz isn't getting the national accolades, his teammates are more than happy to give him all the props they feel he deserves, because he's earned them.
"Maybe for you it doesn't seem like this," Tarasenko said. "'Schwartzy' has always been a great player. We all know this, and whenever guys say something about him, that's their own opinion. Let them talk. We all know what kind of player Jaden (is). For us, he's unbelievable. He has an unbelievable personality. I don't think he (has) ever been underrated. They can talk whatever they want. We all know who 'Schwartzy' is.
"... There's always going to be different opinions on players. I'm proud to play with him for this long stretch and I hope we play longer together."
They will, and Brayden Schenn is now the benefactor of playing between two-thirds of the 'STL Line.'
"He's been awesome since Day 1," Schenn said of Schwartz, a teammate with Team Canada at the world juniors in 2010-11. "... Obviously he's a key piece to this team, a key piece to this locker room."
For the first time in perhaps his NHL career, Schwartz, the 14th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft (two spots ahead of Tarasenko), not only looks but feels 100 percent. Yes, he played 78 games last season, and there were at times questions of 'what's wrong with Schwartz? Why isn't he scoring at the clip when he posted career-highs of 28 goals, 35 assists and 63 points in 2014-15?'
Injuries have derailed, to a degree, Schwartz's progression. A broken foot sustained on Jan. 3, 2015 blocking a shot shelved Schwartz for seven games. But according to him, he was able to overcome that relatively quickly.
Then came the big one, one in which looked painful when it happened at practice on Oct. 23, 2015, but one that sidelined Schwartz for 49 games, a fractured left ankle during a drill. Then last season came a left elbow injury that forced Schwartz to miss four games.
These things take a toll on the body, and what sometimes is not understood is that just because a player returns to action from injury, doesn't necessarily mean said player is 100 percent healthy. Especially Schwartz, who uses his legs for cutting, hard skating and the ability to play a hard, two-way game.
Add on top of everything he dealt with physically, but the toughest hurdle to overcome before even making a mark in the NHL was losing his older sister Mandi, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008 before passing away April 2011.
It's been a challenging and winding road for Schwartz, who only scored eight goals and had 14 assists in 33 games in 2015-16 before 19 goals and 36 assists last season. But still, fans were wondering why the dip in production.
"It's quite a bit different than when you're completely healthy," Schwartz said. "I think guys will tell you when you're hurt, you lose a lot of things, whether it's timing, strength, mobility, different things that you have all the time. I never really had a serious injury until the ankle. I had a broken foot, but I wasn't out long, and then before I got here, I had some ankle issues as well, but the ankle injury was the first (serious) one I had. That's a tough one. I don't know if you can kind of describe it, but that's something where you don't get your mobility back for a long time and you don't get your strength back. Even today, I still need to do things to make sure it's feeling good.
"Any time you have an injury, it sucks being out. You want to get back as soon as you can. As soon as you feel like you're ready to play, you want to jump in, whether your body is 100 percent or not when you're coming back from injury. You want to get back in the lineup and help your team as soon as you can. Sitting out, it just gives you an itch. I don't like making excuses either. With injuries, when you come back, you don't want to use that as an excuse to why you're not playing well or producing. The reality is there's a mental side to it, too, whether you're cautious or you're not. Your instincts aren't quite where they need to be or where they usually are when you're 100 percent. That plays a factor, too, as far as getting to the dirty areas or the corners, in front of the net. You might tweak something if you move the wrong way or someone hits you the wrong way. That plays a factor, too."
Schwartz had a burst in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year, as he said, when he built up momentum from a late push in the regular season, a season that included a stretch of three goals in 40 games. But he finished with five goals in 11 games to close the regular season and had nine points in 11 playoff games, including the game-winning goal of Game 2 in the first round against Minnesota late in the third period; he also produced well in the playoffs in 2016, with 14 points in 20 games.
"Even when I came back from the ankle (in 2016), I think there was maybe 20-30 games until the playoffs, I can't remember exactly, but I felt like the first few, the first little bit was tough, the timing and the feel of it," Schwartz said. "I don't think looking back that I regretted coming back when I did or I remember feeling out of place or playing bad. I thought I jumped in and did as well as I could.
"Sometimes injuries linger. Guys will tell you that, and they can linger longer than you want. Certainly when you get a summer to regroup and rest, that's part of the NHL though. It's not just me; there's a lot of injuries. There's a lot of guys playing banged up. Guys are playing with worse injuries than other guys. Anytime you get a summer to reboot and reset and recover, it goes a long ways."
However, no complaints.
"He gets judged on the last couple years, but he came off that broken ankle, everyone in this league comes back early from injuries," Stastny said of Schwartz. "An injury like that might take 12 months to 18 months to fully heal up, especially with not doing the right rehab because you're playing and practicing every day. Last year, I think he had that elbow injury and I think once we made the coaching change too, I think it opened him up a little bit, freed him up a little bit the way he played the second half of last season and playoffs and he's just kind of continued with it."
Schwartz got in a full summer to not only refresh the body but have one that would heal from the bumps and bruises that go along with an extended regular season and postseason.
He came into training camp this season ready, hungry, and most importantly, feeling good.
"That is (a) fair (assessment) and the reason it's fair is because work ethic is contagious, especially when it's coming from your top group of players," Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "When you watch him play his game, lots of players in this league have skill, but when you combine it with the tenacity and the relentlessness he brings each and every shift, then obviously that's where you start to separate yourself.
"... He doesn't play the game for people to talk about how good he is. But at the same time, he's human. I'm sure he wants to be recognized for his efforts, and the start that he's had, he's got to be in the conversation with the top players in the league. It's great to see him continue to go out and perform at that level."
"We've seen it," Stastny said. "I think he's just getting more and more comfortable with himself and kind of establishing his game, really knowing what his strengths are and the weaknesses that he had. He's kind of polished himself up a little bit and made himself a better all-around player. Obviously the sky's the limit for him because he's pretty high up there, but I think we've seen it every day in practice.
"More guys around the league ask me about him because at first, you kind of look at 'Vladi,' or in the past, 'Backs' [David Backes], [Alexander] Steen, 'Osh' [T.J. Oshie], kind of that line and 'Schwartzy' and 'Vladi' have always kind of been the young guys and now they're coming into their own.
"It's hard to take the puck off of [Schwartz]. I think he kind of creates plays out of nowhere. He's always trying to find space out there, but I think he's a skill player that works really hard. That's what makes the top players. When you see players like Crosby, everyone says how skilled he is, how smart he is, but I think what makes Crosby one of the best players in the game is how hard his work ethic is around the puck and down low, and I think 'Schwartzy's the same way where if he doesn't have the puck, he's going to hunt the puck down. When he's playing with linemates that kind of support him well and can help create those turnovers, I think he's going to be the first man on the puck. He doesn't give the puck away. He's pretty hard on himself sometimes; I think all good players are. I think it's fun to see how emotional he gets. His best attribute is that puck possession game."
A teammate with the now-defunct Peoria Rivermen in 2012-13, Blues goalie Jake Allen has seen the rise and progression, and the proof is in the play this season that Schwartz is as close to himself as he ever has been.
"Even just carrying the puck up the ice, he looks like a different player," Allen said. "I think he's just that much more confident. He's making plays. I think every game, you have at least two to three Grade A scoring chances himself, that's weaseling his way off the wall into the slot finding pucks. That's why he has the numbers he does right now and why he's contributing. He's probably the biggest part of our successes. He's the engine; he really is. He brings it every single night. He wears his emotion on his sleeve and we know that. He's been a fun guy to watch. I got to live with him when we first got to play together in Peoria. It's been a long time since then. He's done so many good things for our team and our organization. I think he's got a very big ceiling ahead of him. He's still only 25-26, whatever he is.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Seventeen points in 13 games have Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz on
pace for career highs in points (107), goals (50) and assists (57).
"So far, and I know it's a very small window, but it's just his confidence, his tenaciousness. He's just all over the puck. It's fun to watch, especially from my end."
Schwartz, who has 97 goals and 132 assists (229 points) in 331 NHL games, is on pace for 107 points on 50 goals and 57 assists, which would shatter his career highs in all three categories.
It bodes well for the Blues that the puck hunter is on the prowl, and the driver that fuels the engine is on a straight and narrow path to success. Including this season, there's four more years of growth and untapped potential the Blues hope to benefit from.
"They may think of that differently than I do," Schwartz said. "I think we've got a lot of guys that can do that for our team, who can spark us at different times. I just focus on doing my job. If I'm doing that and they feel that way, I feel like I'm doing a good job. I enjoy being relentless on pucks. I've always said I was never the biggest guy or (have) the most skill no matter where I've been, so I've had to find other ways to be effective, to be reliable and to be a difference-maker. I feel like that starts with work ethic and being relentless."