In an era when professional athletes seem to arrive younger, the maturation period for a National Hockey League player can be short.
Jaden Schwartz is a shining example.
It has been slightly more than two years since Schwartz was a junior at Colorado College, competing against the likes of St. Cloud State, Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio.
When the Blues take the ice in their opening round playoff game, the 21-year-old Schwartz will be competing against the likes of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz will be a player the Blues are counting on, one of their core group.
It has happened in a blink. And maybe just a little too fast.
“He’s a guy who really will benefit from the time off,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He was pushed up the lineup in minutes, really over the last month, through necessity. I thought at the end of the season he really wore down.”
When the Blues traded talented forward David Perron last summer, they suggested the offensive crack would be caulked by youngsters like Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. They were right.
Schwartz finished the season with 25 goals and 31 assists. Tarasenko added 21 goals and 22 assists before missing the final 15 games with a hand injury.
The return on Perron’s trade to Edmonton included Magnus Paajarvi, and fans are inclined to compare those players specifically. But ice time for Schwartz and Tarasenko increased dramatically in the absence of Perron, who played top-line minutes and power plays.
In that context, Schwartz had three fewer goals than Perron (28) this season and one fewer point. That’s to say nothing of Tarasenko’s contributions.
Moreover, Schwartz emerged as an integral member of the special teams units. He had five power-play goals and a team-leading three short-handed goals. And on a roster occupied by grinders and dutiful players, he was the most reliable, finishing with a team leading plus-28.
That’s a lot of growing up to do in one’s first full season. Again, two years removed from the small-college campus, Schwartz played 80 NHL games, 35 more than he logged in his lockout-shortened rookie season. In those 80 games, 5-foot-10, 190-pound Schwartz played an average of 18 minutes and 32 seconds, six more minutes a game than last season.
To go with those 80 games, there was an emotionally draining visit to Yale University and tributes to his sister, Mandi. A Yale junior, Mandi Schwartz succumbed to acute myeloid leukemia in April, 2011.
One by one, as the Blues approached the finish line, thoroughbreds broke down. Forwards Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Brenden Morrow formed a line to the injured list.
Schwartz was one of the last men standing, and in four of the team’s last five games, he played more than 19 minutes, topped by 20:23 at Minnesota on March 10. When the Blues hit the wall and dropped their last six games, Schwartz was among the splattered, despite scoring a couple of goals.
“He wore down,” Hitchcock said. “But he seems way more refreshed today. He’s way more alert and everything, with a big smile on his face. I think the rest has done us a lot of good.”
Schwartz acknowledged the season has been more demanding personally than any before it. But he doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t accept them.
“It’s the most games I’ve played in a season and it’s demanding on the body,” said Schwartz. “But you have to manage your rest and hard work. These days are nice to catch up on that and get re-focused. I feel fine now.”
The Blues need the Schwartz — and his force — to be with them. A number of the injured were on the ice at St. Louis Outlet Mall on Tuesday, and some were not.
“Nobody knows the lineup right now,” Schwartz said. “But to see guys skating, everyone gets excited to know everybody is getting better. They’re all important players for our club.”
The team will get a better idea of the casualty count in a full practice today. Some of the injured will be back, some will be back in the press box.
The situation makes Schwartz all the more essential. He has five goals in 10 games against Chicago over the past two seasons. He has matured into an impact player, and he embraces the challenge ahead.
“We don’t have a doubt in here what we can do,” said Schwartz. “It’s a great first-round match for us. This is the funnest part of the year and we’re looking forward to it.”
Spoken like a crusty veteran of the NHL wars, all 21 years of age.