Manitoba Moose center Jordan Schroeder came better than advertised just 1 minute, 52 seconds into his pro career.
On his very first shift, March 21 vs. Grand Rapids, Schroeder deflected a power play shot from teammate Lawrence Nycholat into the back of the net for his maiden goal.
"My jaw just kind of dropped. I was like, did I just score?" Schroeder said. "It's your first pro game, you're excited, nervous. You have to love the game and love the challenge."
That's the kind of talk that raises the eyebrows of Moose coach Scott Arniel. The coach, like everyone else, appreciates the touted rookie's past, his starring role on three U.S. World Juniors teams and his selection as the No. 22 overall pick by Vancouver in the 2009 draft.
Yet Arniel wants more, as is the nature of title-hungry coaches. Arniel looks at the mountain that is the first-round playoff series between Manitoba and Hamilton and says, "How about climbing that?"
Winnipeg gets even more hockey-crazed come playoffs. North Division champion Hamilton was the league's best defensive team this season and hoarded 115 points. There isn't much that makes Schroeder sweat after all these years, but then again, nothing beats a first AHL postseason as a gauge for a phenom's development.
"This will be a big stage for how he shows against these teams," Arniel said. "It's going to be about his attention to detail, how he wants to compete, not just over one shift or one game, but over seven games. That's what young guys have to face when they go to the NHL. The pressure of this time of year is going to be as big as of some of those (World Junior) tournaments. I'm sure he'll have a target on his back."
No doubt, but it will be a moving one, and also one that shoots back.
Schroeder has an ease about his game appropriate for such a high pick, and so far he's made playing in the AHL look that way. He scored twice in that first game, then added 1 goal and 3 assists in his next three. In his 11 regular-season games after joining the Moose out of the University of Minnesota, he posted 4 goals and 5 assists.
"I set high expectations for myself. At the same time, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to contribute," he said. "You want to be noticed out there. It's a challenge for yourself."
Schroeder's been a pressure-treated product for the last three years, especially at the World Juniors. The gold this year capped off a run in which he became the U.S. all-time career points leader in that competition (19-7).
"My first and second World Juniors, it was a little bit of a wakeup call," he said. "I took lots of pride in those games. Being a winner is a great feeling. You've been in those situations. You know what to expect. You know what to do to be on the top of your game."
Arniel didn't have time or playing minutes for anything short of that. Schroeder, 19, joined Manitoba at a time when the Moose was trying to make sure the last playoff spot in the North didn't scatter away in the prairie winds.
"There's confidence there. He doesn't panic with the puck," Arniel said. "That's what skill guys have. They have an inner drive to push through to do things that other guys don't do."
And, correspondingly, a frustration level that magnifies when that drive bogs down. Schroeder went 13-32 as a freshman at Minnesota two seasons ago, but dropped off to 9-19 this year.
It was a predictable hiccup forced by opponents wise to and weary of Schroeder's playmaking skills. Defenses bore in on Schroeder, forcing him to give up the puck in non-scoring situations, then hounded him so there was no room to get it back.
Coming to a lineup of pros opened the window for some fresh air on his game and cleared out space on the ice.
"I'm usually a playmaker. Sometimes giving it and not getting it back was a little frustrating," he said. "This start in Manitoba has been great for me and my confidence. Every guy on every (pro) team, they understand the game. That's why they are here. It's a more controlled game. It's definitely a different style of game, but it definitely benefits me."
Arniel has kept Schroeder thinking by making him a movable piece of the puzzle. Schroeder has a background on the wing, especially at the World Juniors. With the Moose, Arniel has put him back in the middle. At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, that creates a disadvantage in trying to defend pro centers, but when you flip that around it's always a plus when Schroeder gets more quality time handling the puck.
"Both areas (wing and center) have brought out the best in him," Arniel said. "We knew he was a smaller player but he does a good job of not putting himself in precarious positions. He's got real good vision on the ice."
The same may not yet be true of Schroeder's view of the AHL's rugged playoff terrain. But his sense of how it can shape perceptions of teams and individuals is coming into sharp focus.
"It will define your character, the way you play," he said. "It's definitely a big step for me in my career. You want to be involved out there. If I can learn how to adapt to the game and be a winner, hopefully it can carry over to the next level."