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Schwartz won't let size stop him

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Jaden Schwartz

St. Louis Blues center Jaden Schwartz, center, controls the puck against the Tampa Bay Lighting during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 17, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Jaden Schwartz was in town last week and spent an afternoon at the Zoo. The Saskatchewan native particularly liked the penguins and elephants, which is not surprising.

Schwartz probably could relate to the contrast. At times during his hockey career, he must feel like he is surrounded by elephants. The average size and weight of today's NHL player exceeds 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds. If he eats a good breakfast and stretches in the morning, Schwartz checks in at a penguin-esque 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. But like the feisty flightless bird, Schwartz has adapted.

"There's always room for improvement," Schwartz said. "With me being a smaller guy, you definitely want to work on your lower body strength and make sure you're quick. If you're not as big as the other guys, you have to make sure you're quick.

"It's not like I didn't work hard before. But being around NHL players makes you realize how much harder you have to work and how much you have to push yourself."

Schwartz has quickness, to be sure. He is quick to recognize holes, quick to read plays, quick to make adjustments. Hockey is not simply about size. It's also about leverage, determination, speed and intelligence. Schwartz is a relatively small player, just as he was small in college and everywhere else he's played. It hasn't held him back.

In Midget AAA in 2007-08, Schwartz led the league and broke the scoring records held by Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, with 39 goals and 111 points in 44 games. Now with Tampa Bay, LeCavalier is 6-4, 210 pounds. Now with the Rangers, Richards is 6-foot, 200 pounds.

The Blues have a number of relatively small forwards, including Andy McDonald, Scott Nichol, David Perron, Matt D'Agostini and T.J. Oshie. But when Schwartz arrives for training camp in September, with his sights set on denting a crowded roster, size won't matter.

"We don't worry about that a bit," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Height and weight can be really misleading. You can be a big guy and have very little power in your game. Jaden is not a very big player, but he has great strength on his stick.

"So I don't think any of us worry about the height and weight. It's more about how strong are you on the puck. Like Perron and Oshie, they're not 220 pounds, but they have really strong sticks so they can play against players of that height and weight."

Schwartz was the Blues' No. 1 pick in the 2010 amateur draft. When he decided to forgo his remaining college eligibility and sign with the Blues last March, he joined the parent club directly from Colorado College. He played in seven games, recorded two goals and an assist and finished a plus-1. He did not dress for a playoff game but continued to practice with the team and observe. The baptism by fire was invaluable.

"I think it really prepares you," said Schwartz, who recently turned 20. "It's hard to explain, but just practicing and being around the guys really benefits you. I think it can improve you a lot in practice, you can almost learn something new just from watching the older guys.

"As a young guy, I was happy to do that. It was exciting and a lot of fun, so I'm hoping I can take that with me now and hopefully I will benefit from it in some more games."

His draft number aside, his time spent with last year's team notwithstanding, Schwartz will have his work cut out for him. With the Blues adding highly regarded prospect Vladimir Tarasenko, with others fighting for positions, qualifying promises to break some hearts and surprise some experts.

Given Schwartz's profile and promise as an offensive player, one might speculate whether he would have to be among the top six forwards to stick, or if he might be better served spending time among the top six in Peoria. But Schwartz has one other important quality going for him that transcends the seeding, a quality he demonstrated to Hitchcock in his brief time with the Blues. Schwartz can be trusted.

"Certainly, there's an opportunity there," Hitchcock said. "I don't think he has to play in the top six. I think that's hard for a young player to do. I think the first thing is just to be good enough to be one of the best 13 or 14 players, and we'll kind of sort out what's best for him from there.

"First of all, I think he really benefited from spending all the time with us and going through everything, so his comfort level around us is going to allow him to just come in and play. And when he got in, he did the job, he played well. ... I know he doesn't have a lot of games, but you trust him, You know you can put him on the ice, and he's going to do things the right way."

Another of Schwartz's best assets is his makeup. When he joined the Blues in mid-flight last season, he did so the right way. He was respectful of his surroundings, spoke when spoken to, listened and learned. As a result, he was welcomed with open arms by the veteran players.

Schwartz will bring the same unassuming personality to camp. His goal is to make the club, and his confidence and work ethic will be elevated toward that goal. That said, if he began the season in the American Hockey League, counseling would not be necessary.

He realizes he is 20 years old and the leap from Colorado College to the NHL is an Evel Knievel-size jump. He is hopeful, determined, but also realistic.

"No, I wouldn't consider it a step back at all," Schwartz said. "I mean everyone wants to play in the NHL right away, but you know how it is. There's a lot of well-known guys in the NHL now who played in the AHL first. The AHL is a stepping stone for a lot of players who need to adjust to the pro game and adjust to the pro life.

"I'm hoping I can make the Blues. But if not, you just have to make sure you're improving each day and getting better in the AHL so that when you get that chance, you're ready to play in the NHL."

Schwartz had a lot to absorb last spring when he joined an NHL team in the final stretch of its 109-point season. Come training camp, he'll demonstrate if he fits right in.

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