Even though there is a league-wide player work stoppage, some players are still doing what they can to improve their skills and maintain a good work ethic.
Blues prospects Jaden Schwartz and Ian Cole are no exception. Both players joined the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL in September and have enjoyed jumping into the full experience of playing in the Central Illinois city, which is just 167 miles South of Chicago.
“It’s a grind every night,” said Schwartz, who was the Blues’ 1st selection, 14th overall, in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. “Bus trips are fun to be on. You play a lot of games in a short amount of days. It’s a good experience. I haven’t been a part of it for too long yet, but I am definitely having fun.”
Schwartz has not exactly made a typical jump into professional hockey. He signed a pro-level contract on May 12, the day after his sophomore season ended at Colorado College. He then met his NHL teammates in Chicago and practiced with the team on the road for four days before getting his first crack in an NHL game on March 17 in Tampa Bay. Schwartz scored his first NHL goal in that game en route to a 3-1 Blues victory. He went on to score two goals and one assist in 7 NHL games last season.
In the Rivermen’s home opener against the Rockford Ice Hogs on Friday, Schwartz scored the game-winning goal on a wrist shot from the hash marks at 16:13 of the second period. The Rivermen went on to win 2-1 for their first victory of the season.
“Anytime you can contribute in any way, it feels good,” he said. “It was a special win and it was a special goal.”
Cole is a little more acclimated to playing in the AHL. He has spent the majority of the past four seasons in Peoria, while also sprinkling in 56 NHL games with the Blues.
With the departure of veteran defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, the Blues currently have an open spot on the blue line. It was a hole that was expected to be filled by a free-agent, but it now seems more likely that Cole would have been the guy to step in and fill the vacancy. The current work stoppage has put a damper on that idea.
Cole shares the sentiments made by Blue Jackets prospect Marcus Foligno, who recently told TSN that playing in the AHL is “a great opportunity” for him and others like him.
“There are a lot of guys that don’t have a spot to play and didn’t want to go overseas that are really stuck in a tough spot right now,” said Cole. “[I was]able to still come down here on an entry-level deal and play in the best league in North-America, potentially the best league in the world right now, and [am] able to play a lot of minutes, play in every game and gain a lot more experience. Hopefully when the season comes back, if there is an opportunity to step back up with the Blues, I’ll have played 20 games or however many games it takes to start the season. I think it’s a great situation for me to be able to come down here and play and be on a great team like this and hopefully be able to lead a little bit.”
Cole delivered a crushing hit to Ice Hogs forward Brandon Pirri at 12:59 of the first period at center ice. After receiving a pass, Pirri turned at center and was met with the shoulder of Cole, who dropped him instantly. The 6’1” defenseman had to defend his check against Pirri’s teammate Peter LeBlanc, who came at Cole with his gloves dropped. The fight left Cole with a gash near his left eye, but it was hidden by a smile that filled his face when talking about the play.
“His defenseman threw him an absolute buddy pass,” joked Cole. “It wasn’t even hard either; it was just kind of a slow roller. I timed it and stepped right into him. The situation presented itself and I was just thinking ‘hit the guy hard.’”
Cole feels that this type of play will be what he can bring to the Rivermen, and when the NHL’s labor negotiations end, to the big club in St. Louis.
“I’m trying to bring hopefully a little bit of patience [as well as] a little bit of poise in the back-end,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to continue hits like that and send a message every once in a while. I’ll be able to play physical but still play solid defense and contribute a little offense if the time presents itself.”
The ultimate goal for both players remains the same, though; improve in the AHL and prove that they belong in the NHL on a full-time basis when it returns.
“That was a special experience [being] up in the NHL last year and I have tried taking that experience down here,” Schwartz said. “I will learn what I can and get better while I am down here.”
“I would love to play in the NHL,” said Cole. “You don’t dream about playing in the AHL when you’re a kid.”