Justin Schütz cracks a smile when asked about the challenge that lies ahead of him.
Not quite ready to compete for a spot with the Florida Panthers, the 19-year-old forward has his sights set on a different prize during the 2019-20 campaign, hoping to make some noise on the international stage while playing for his native Germany at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"I'm really excited," a beaming Schütz said. "We're playing against Canada, USA, Russia and Czech [Republic]. They're some of the best junior teams in the world. We just want to play good out there and show what Germany can do out there. We're all really excited to play out there."
While a gold medal would be nice, the primary goal for Germany at the tournament, which will run from Dec 26, 2019 through Jan 5, 2020 in Ostrava and Třinec, Czech Republic, is to remain in the main group after being relegated to Division 1A following a 10th place finish back in 2015.
A sixth-round pick of the Panthers in the 2018 NHL Draft, Schütz played a major role in helping the Germans climb back into the main event this past season, posting two goals and five assists to help his team win both a gold medal and a promotion at the 2019 Division 1A World Juniors.
Panthers Director of Player Personnel Bryan McCabe said he and Schütz "spoke at length" about the tournament during Florida's development camp last month at the Panthers IceDen.
"He's really proud of it," McCabe said of Schütz's performance at the World Juniors. "He really played well over there. He was one of the best players in that tournament, and now he's excited to play against the big boys in the A group this year. That's obviously one of his goals this year, to go to that tournament and shock the world, upset some people and not get relegated again."
When asked about the growth of hockey in Germany, Schütz pointed to both the nation's silver-medal finish at the 2018 Winter Olympics and the growing number of his countrymen that are being drafted into the NHL as the two main driving forces behind the sport's surge in popularity.
There has been a total of seven German-born players drafted by NHL teams since 2014, a list that includes three first-round picks in Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl (3rd overall, 2014), St. Louis' Dominik Bokk (25th overall, 2018) and, most recently, Detroit's Moritz Seider (6th overall, 2019).
At the 2019 1A World Juniors, the trio of Bokk, Schütz and Seider combined for 22 points. Bokk led the tournament with eight points, while Schütz and Seider tied for second with seven apiece.
Those three players, along with projected 2020 first-round pick Tim Stützle, are also why some are banking on the Germans having one of their best showings in quite some time at this year's tournament. In 26 appearances at the World Juniors, Germany has never taken home a medal.
And while a medal remains a longshot, Schütz said avoiding relegation would be a victory.
"I think German hockey's rising a little bit," said Schütz, who traveled around Florida before heading to Coral Springs for his second D-Camp with the Cats in June. "This year, again, a first-round pick with Seider. We performed well in the U18 and U20. Next year, we're just trying to stay up in the top division. That's the challenge… It's going to be tough, but we're going to do it."
When he's not preparing for the World Juniors, Schütz will be fine-tuning his game with EHC Red Bull München of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, which is the top pro circuit in Germany. A powerhouse team in the DEL, München has won three of the last four league championships.
And although he spent the majority of last season with junior clubs and with EC Salzburg II in the Alps Hockey League, Schütz said he should benefit from getting a taste of what it's like to play in the pros last season, when he registered one assist in a three-game stint with München.
"I played some games out there this past season," Schütz said of his experience in the DEL. "It's a big difference to play with men, in the battles and stuff. It's a huge difference to play in junior and then come into the pros. When you go into battles again men, they're bigger and smarter. You just try to go out there and show what you can."
Schütz said he hopes to use his time in the DEL to improve several areas of his game.
"I want to work on my physical stuff, going into battles and winning battles," Schütz said. "That's a huge thing. I'll also work on my shooting and skating. You can always improve your skating."
Between the World Juniors and going through the grind of his first tour of the professional ranks, McCabe said he hopes to see Schütz make some big strides during his busy 2019-20 season.
"He's got a good opportunity to play in the DEL in Germany this year," McCabe said. "He got a taste of it last year, but this year he thinks he can go in there and earn some more quality minutes and responsibility and just keep developing."