Unheralded Schueneman raising eyebrows with Canadiens

Jake Evans scored a goal and assist to help lead the Montreal Canadiens to a 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.

MONTREAL — Here’s what Corey Schueneman’s performance in Saturday’s 5-1 win for his Montreal Canadiens over the Ottawa Senators looked like on paper: 20:43 of ice time, 19:17 at even strength, 51 seconds on the power play, 35 seconds on the penalty kill, one assist, two shots on net, one giveaway, one takeaway, seven blocked shots.

We call that making an impact, and certainly more of one than most would’ve expected when he was called up to this league for the very first time in December of 2021. This is an undrafted defenceman who played four years at Western Michigan before four years in the AHL that were interrupted by a very brief stint in the ECHL.

Now, at 26, he’s just 12 games deep into what appears to be a promising NHL career.

Of course, as coach Martin St. Louis said after the Canadiens put on a show for their fans at the Bell Centre, it’s probably too soon to say just how high Schueneman can reach in the world’s best league.

But it’s not too soon to say the Michigan native is showing just how beneficial it can be for young defencemen to develop in professional leagues lower than the NHL. And it’s certainly not too soon to say that Schueneman’s performance, if it continues to improve from here to the end of this season, will likely buy the Canadiens some time to develop some of their promising young defencemen in those leagues.

There’s a reason this player has gone from anonymous to talk of the town; a reason why he jumped into his first NHL action without a parachute and made a perfect landing; a reason why his teammates are saying “he’s got swagger,” as defence partner Chris Wideman and forward Josh Anderson put it on Saturday; a reason why there was no hesitation from St. Louis and Canadiens defence coach Luke Richardson to not only play him in all situations but push him over the boards for 23 shifts, including the last one of Saturday’s game.

“I think the American League probably built his confidence by just getting a lot of reps, a good amount of ice time and it kept his development going in the right direction so that when he does get his chance, he’s in a good place,” said St. Louis of Schueneman.

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If you’re wondering how the coach, who spent over 100 games — probably 100 more than he hoped to play — in the AHL feels about developing there versus in the NHL, he made that quite clear after the game.

“I think for anybody who’s a young guy or a young pro, I think what’s important is getting your reps,” said St. Louis. “Sometimes you want to play in the NHL because you think you’re (at that level), but the reality is if you’re not getting the reps you need for your development it might be just a short-term benefit of being in the NHL. And I think for long-term, some of these young guys who all aspire to be in the NHL sometime — (the best way) to make sure your development is moving forward is getting the reps, whether that’s playing on the power play or playing on the penalty kill or playing like 20 minutes a game versus nine. Those are very important reps at a young age.

“So, for me, there’s no reason to rush a young guy who’s not going to get the quality reps he needs to get for his development.”

Think of Mattias Norlinder, Montreal’s third-round pick in 2019 who came over to the Canadiens this past fall carrying big expectations after an impressive pro debut in Sweden. He played six games here this season, averaged just over 12 minutes of ice time, got a glimpse of what the game is like at this level and got exposed both by the Canadiens and their opposition.

Norlinder’s inevitable return to Sweden happened because that was where he wanted to be instead of the AHL, and it hasn’t gone as smoothly as he or the Canadiens would hope. He’s got two points in 19 games with Frolunda and likely isn’t getting better at North American-style hockey playing on the big European ice surfaces.

But we digress. If Norlinder’s contract agreement had initially allowed for it, starting him for 50 games in the AHL before giving him a real shot of NHL action might have turned this into a different story.

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Meanwhile, the Canadiens are hoping Jordan Harris is on his way to Montreal from Northeastern University when his season wraps. Arber Xhekaj, 21, is signed and coming out of the OHL. And then there’s Kaiden Guhle, a first-round pick in 2020 who just captained the Canadian World Junior team (before the tournament was postponed because of COVID-19) and a player who looked like an NHLer at training camp this past fall after playing just three games in the AHL last season.

All three of them could viably play games with the Canadiens next season , but the emergence of Schueneman — a pending restricted free agent who only needs to be qualified at $750,000 –could make it so that none of them have to rush to play all of them. That’s a luxury.

It’s one the Canadiens can’t take for granted, with Ben Chiarot having been traded to the Florida Panthers on Wednesday and Brett Kulak possibly being traded before Monday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline. Schueneman’s ability to fill the void and buy them time is to be appreciated.

The player could also prove to be more than just a placeholder. Especially if he continues on this trajectory.

Schueneman scored his first NHL goal in Thursday’s 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars and followed it up with what would have to be considered his best game as a Canadien on Saturday. And he’s been solid through and through in the other 10.

“He’s played awesome,” said Wideman. “It’s been a lot of fun to play with him.”

It was fun to watch Schueneman on this night, too.

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