Sitting conspicuously atop a stack of St. Louis Blues
equipment bags stacked outside the visitor’s locker room at Tampa Bay Times Forum is one that looks out of place.
That bag is labeled “Colorado College” and belongs to the newest acquisition of the Blues, Jaden Schwartz
. Schwartz, a Blues’ first-round pick (14th overall) in 2010, signed an entry-level contract when his college season ended March 13 and joined the team on the current road trip in Carolina on March 15.
After two team practices, Schwartz will make his professional debut Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning
“I’m definitely nervous,” Schwartz said after the morning skate. “Maybe more excited than anything, but hopefully after a few shifts the nerves will go away a little bit.”
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock is counting on that, and he’s not too worried that he’ll be wrong, either.
“He’ll take regular shifts tonight and we’ll get a read later on, but our attitude is that the more minutes we get him up to speed, the quicker the transition will be,” Hitchcock said. “We’ll get him lots of five-on-five time and he’s going to play on the power play and we’ll see.”
Hitchcock sounds a lot more assured than 19-year-old Schwartz, who admits that the pace of the action is different in the NHL.
“It’s a big difference from college hockey,” Schwartz said. “It’s faster. The guys are a lot bigger and stronger, the passing is more tape-to-tape. It’s definitely an adjustment.”
A veteran coach like Hitchcock, who has been behind the bench for 1,041 NHL games, has seen more than his share of rookies and is confident that Schwartz will fit in.
“I thought he was really nervous when he first came here,” Hitchcock said. “I thought going from an emotional letdown to the high and then all of a sudden you’re getting systems slammed down your throat. He looked very comfortable during the practice in Carolina and he looked comfortable on the ice Friday, so that’s a good sign.”
And while the rookie’s nerves might be jumping as game time approaches, he won’t get much special attention or sympathy from his coach.
“Just play. It’s a big enough deal and to me it’s about the emotion and intensity of the moment and you don’t want to build it up more than it is," Hitchcock said. "When we’re with him, if we treat it like it’s another hockey game then we take the pressure off of him. He’s going to have pressure on himself and have enough anxiety going, so just play. Jaden’s not a high-wire act; he’s a very responsible player so if he’s going to err anywhere he’ll err on the side of caution and I think that will give him some good quality minutes tonight.
“I think the biggest adjustment is going to be time and space with the puck. He’s going to have to learn that but I look at all these other guys that have picked up speed and it didn’t take them long, some of these kids that are coming in late; they’re doing fine and Schwartz is as good or better than a lot of those guys.”
So far, Schwartz’s best information has come from observing.
"I’m watching the veterans, how they play and how they handle themselves,” Schwartz said. “You learn a lot from watching.”
Just now, that’s about the only way the young prospect is learning, since his teammates, like his coach, are keeping mum.
“Any advice would just clog things up,” 17-year veteran Jamie Langenbrunner
said. “He’s going to be nervous, for sure, playing in his first NHL game. We all remember our first NHL game. The key is to let him have some fun with it. You only play your first game once.”