Like many young first-round draft picks before him, highly-touted Vancouver Canucks prospect Jordan Schroeder arrived for his first NHL training camp as a pro this fall with the eyes of fans and media trained squarely on him.
But after the forward turned in an admittedly less than stellar performance in a September prospects tournament and was ultimately assigned to the AHL's Manitoba Moose later that month, and after new Moose coach Claude Noel candidly described Schroeder's play as "average" -- a comment which then made the rounds in both Vancouver and Winnipeg -- you could be forgiven for thinking that as far as everyone's first impressions were concerned, it wasn't ideal.
The 20-year-old Schroeder, though, tried to take it all in stride.
"It's disappointing, but it's disappointing for anyone," he said of being sent to Manitoba. "This is my first year of pro hockey and it's going to take time. I definitely learned a lot of things going into camp, and I'm going to learn a lot of things (in the AHL) too. Just like many great players who have gone on to be stars in the NHL, you have to prove yourself here first.
"And with the media, they're going to blow some things out of proportion and say some things that maybe aren't quite true. You just have to let it blow over your shoulder, go out there and play good hockey."
In 2008, he suited up for his home-state University of Minnesota and promptly put together a 13-goal, 45-point season en route to winning WCHA rookie of the year honors. In June 2009, Vancouver scooped him up with the 22nd selection in the NHL Entry Draft.
Then, following his sophomore year at Minnesota in 2009-10, Schroeder joined the Moose late in the season and celebrated the occasion by scoring a goal on his very first professional shift, part of a 4-0 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on March 21, 2010.
He wound up with 7 goals and 15 points in 17 regular-season and playoff games for Manitoba to close the campaign.
In Schroeder's mind, the time had come to leave college and turn pro full-time.
"No doubt, it was time for me," he said. "I needed to step my game up at the next level and prove that I can play here. The AHL is a great league, I've been shown that here in the first few games, and I just have to keep plugging away."
Playing primarily with some combination of veteran Marco Rosa and fellow rookies Aaron Volpatti and Cody Hodgson -- the latter of whom was drafted No. 10 by Vancouver in 2008 -- Schroeder has recorded 4 assists and a pair of shootout goals through six games for Manitoba on the young 2010-11 season.
At just 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Schroeder is never going to be one of the bigger bodies out on the ice, so he has to compensate for his lack of size in other areas.
"I think my main thing is to be a playmaker, create scoring opportunities," he said, "but I'm not going to be able to do that if I'm not moving my feet or always pressuring the puck, constantly working hard. I've got to use my speed and skill."
Noel agrees wholeheartedly with that assessment.
"He's really clever, very creative and looks like he's going to be a really good player for us in a lot of ways," said Noel, who has primarily been using Schroeder, a natural center, on the right wing in an effort to boost his play along the walls as well as his versatility for an NHL career.
"He has to use his speed and use it effectively. He can't get tied around the boards too much because he'll get locked down, so he has to be evasive, but he can still dig and get at loose pucks."
Noel likens Schroeder to a Patrick Kane-type player – not necessarily big and strong, but someone who can lose a one-on-one battle but still outsmart the other player and use his cleverness to make an effective offensive play with the puck.
"Jordan has the tools and the attributes to put it all together," Noel said, "but there's a process for that because at this level and the next level, he can get shut down pretty quickly unless he's smart and finds ways to be effective. But he's going to be a smart offensive player."
Aside from continuing to harness his offensive talents and translating them to a pro game which features a big uptick in talent from college, Noel and Schroeder both agree that the rookie needs to build up his strength and consistently put himself in position to win battles in the dirty areas of the ice.
In turn, that will lead to him having control of the puck more often in situations where he can use his speed and playmaking ability to create offensive opportunities.
"I just have to be constantly moving my feet and then coming in on the backcheck, stealing pucks, and going back down offensively to become a threat," Schroeder said. "(The coaches) sit you down and let you know things you need to work on, and I take it as a learning tool. You can't take it as negative feedback. You have to work on those areas."
For his part, Noel is quick to put that "average" comment from training camp in the proper context as it applies to Schroeder's game and those like him.
"I didn't mean it in a disrespectful way. What I meant is that essentially, all players have to try to have some form of impact on the game," Noel said. "If Jordan's going to have an impact on a game, it'll because he has the speed, smarts, he creates, and he makes things happen. If those things aren't happening, then it's an average game."
"He has to figure out, like a lot of young players, how he's going to use his strengths that he has and turn them into an NHL career," the coach continued, "because a lot of players have skill and speed. Once he starts being effective at this level, he'll find that he'll be able to play (in the NHL). I like him a lot."