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Proving he belongs

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
It hasn’t been an easy road to the NHL for Jordan Schroeder.

Vancouver’s 2009 1st round selection (22nd overall) had to wait three years before making his debut in Canuck colours. After an impressive freshman debut with the University of Minnesota in 2008-09 (45 points in 35 games), Schroeder experienced the dreaded sophomore slump in 2009-10, finishing with only 28 points in 37 games. He decided to turn professional after that season, and his ups and downs continued in the AHL with Manitoba and Chicago between 2009 and 2013.

What Schroeder lacks in height (at 5-foot-9, he gives up at least four or five inches to opposing centermen) he makes up for in smarts, speed, and strength. He has worked extremely hard each summer to add muscle to his frame, and that effort in the gym is paying off right now. Schroeder trains each summer with Kirk Olson, who runs the Total Hockey School in Minnesota. Olson is also the strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Wild, and he trains the likes of Zach Parise, Kyle Okposo, and Drew Stafford every off-season.

Parise is well known for his tenacious style of play on the ice, and that tenacity and work ethic has been an inspiration for Schroeder. Like Parise, Schroeder has had to overcome a lack of height and size every step of the way. Even with the premium placed on speed in the NHL today, small players still have to work that much harder to make it.

And we have seen this season with Zack Kassian just how important summer training is to in-season performance. Kassian benefitted tremendously from training with Daniel and Henrik Sedin last summer, as well as with highly regarded trainer Dave Orton back in Windsor, Ontario. Parise’s work ethic and determination have rubbed off on Schroeder over the past few summers.

As he has been developing in the AHL, many Canucks fans have wondered where Schroeder would fit in Vancouver. With his lack of size, he didn’t seem like a suitable candidate for a checking line spot, especially with how Alain Vigneault likes to deploy his third and fourth lines (tough defensive situations, for the most part). However, Schroeder has proven that not only can he skate and make great plays offensively, but he is very smart in his own zone, and he knows where to be without the puck. That hockey sense allowed him to succeed in college and at the AHL level, and it has given Vigneault and the rest of the coaching staff the confidence to play him late in close games without worrying about how he will do against top opposing players.

For comparison’s sake, Cody Hodgson was deployed in a primarily offensive role last season before getting dealt to Buffalo. Hodgson is a gifted offensive player, but his lack of foot speed made him a liability at even strength. The Canuck coaching staff didn’t play him like a typical third line center – Hodgson was given very little in the way of defensive responsibilities, as they fell mostly on Ryan Kesler, Max Lapierre, and Manny Malhotra. However, that isn’t going to be an issue with Schroeder.

He won’t be mistaken for Kesler in his own zone, but Schroeder has proven that he can make positive contributions in more ways than just on the scoresheet.

Behind The Numbers

Through seven games in 2013, Schroeder is averaging a very respectable 14:47 of ice time per game. He has been seeing regular powerplay minutes on the second unit, and for good reason. He is arguably the best pure playmaker on the team after Daniel and Henrik (in fact, those cross-ice saucer passes he has been sending Raymond’s way are very Henrik-like).

Some evidence of his playmaking ability:

He only has six shots on goal through seven games, but with more confidence that number is sure to increase. Shots on goal and offensive production go hand in hand – it isn’t a coincidence that the league’s top scorers are usually among the leaders in shots on goal as well.

Schroeder has struggled a bit at the faceoff dot (winning only 42.8 percent of faceoffs taken), which is very common for young centers. Sidney Crosby wasn’t great at faceoffs in his rookie season, and he now ranks among the best in the league. Schroeder has some of the best faceoff men in the league as teammates (particularly Malhotra), and you can bet he is working hard on learning the tendencies of opposing centers in the Western Conference with each game.

Surprisingly, Schroeder has been solid on the dot on the road, winning 52.6 percent of his faceoffs. In the NHL, the home team gets the benefit of last change, which means Schroeder has been winning those faceoffs against primarily top six NHL centermen (as opposing coaches tend to stick their top checking centers out against Henrik).

And he had perhaps his best game of the season on Monday night against Edmonton. Schroeder didn’t look out of place centering the second scoring unit with Raymond and Burrows on the wing.

So what does Vigneault do when Kesler is ready to return? Well, he has some options.

Speed Kills

The first option is to stick Schroeder on a third scoring unit with Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen. Schroeder and Raymond have already displayed terrific chemistry, and Hansen on their right side would create arguably the fastest line in the entire league.

Hansen is also a very diligent back-checker and would make Schroeder’s transition to the NHL easier from a defensive perspective. This combination would also allow the Canucks to reunite Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows on the second line, and they could be joined by David Booth or Chris Higgins. That line would likely see the bulk of the checking assignments – Burrows is one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and Kesler deservedly won the Selke Trophy in 2011 as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

Bumping Kesler Over

Kesler’s offensive prowess at the NHL level really started to show itself after he moved to the right wing to play with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra back in 2008-09. Playing on the wing granted Kesler a bit more freedom to hang around in the offensive zone, and he was able to get in on the forecheck with more regularity. And because of his incredible speed and active stick, he was still usually the last man back on the forecheck to disrupt opposing rushes.

The Canucks could toy with the idea of a line with Schroeder centering Burrows and Kesler. Schroeder would be able to line up with two terrific defensive forwards, and also two players who know how to put the puck in the net. Kesler would still be able to act as a center in many ways – when he played with Sundin he often had the defensive assignments typically given to a center, for example.

The Washington Capitals moved the right-shooting Alex Ovechkin over to the right wing in hopes of freeing up some more space for him in the offensive zone. The move wasn’t exactly a success, but that may have more to do with Ovechkin’s effort level than the positional change itself. Kesler has worked really hard at developing a wicked wrist shot over the past few years, and he would have a lot more space to get it off coming up the right side of the ice compared to his off wing or at the center position. He scored a lot of his 41 goals back in 2010-11 by carrying the puck up the middle before cutting to the right and shooting, but teams started to pick up on that tendency and he wasn’t able to executive it to the same effect in 2011-12. A move to the right side may reinvigorate his offensive arsenal a bit.

You may ask why Schroeder doesn’t move to wing. Many undersized natural centers have made the transition to wing at the NHL level, including Parise. Schroeder has been tried at wing in the past, and he hasn’t been nearly as effective there compared to the center position.

The Journey Continues

Regardless of where Schroeder slots in when Kesler returns, he has proven over the past two weeks that he is an NHL player. The Canucks were very patient with him since drafting him almost four years ago, and full marks should be given to Schroeder for battling through a lot of adversity over the past few years.

And when comparing Schroeder to players who have followed a similar path to the NHL, he appears right on track with his development. Schroeder is currently 22-years-old. At the age of 22, Parise scored 31 goals for the Devils. As an undersized forward, Parise’s quick adjustment to the NHL was and is a very rare occurrence. Blues forward Andy McDonald was still in his final year of college at 22 years old (don’t forget, Schroeder turned pro after only two years at Minnesota), and at that age Martin St. Louis was playing for the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the now-defunct IHL. The point being – small forwards generally take a bit longer to make it to the NHL, even great ones like McDonald and St. Louis.

Schroeder has never been handed anything, and Vigneault is known to reward players based on performance over contract and experience. Schroeder has been an effective two-way player for the Canucks in 2013, and his speed adds a dimension that could help Vancouver get back to the Stanley Cup Final.

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