ST. LOUIS — "I’m ready," Jaden Schwartz said Tuesday morning following the Blues’ optional practice at the St. Louis Mills.
The words hung in the air for a bit. The young forward’s proclamation to the media surrounding his locker stall went without a response at first, as reporters fiddled with their recording devices. But Schwartz, who was sitting and untying his skates, was ready for questions.
"Are you ready?" a reporter asked Schwartz a few seconds later, apparently unaware of the winger’s earlier pronouncement.
Those three little words might be the biggest question surrounding the St. Louis Blues as they enter the NHL playoffs for the third consecutive season with an inexplicable six-game losing streak that dropped them from Presidents’ Cup contender to second-place finisher in the Western Conference’s Central Division.
That simple query can be directed to any member of the St. Louis roster, especially the numerous players dealing with late-season struggles or injuries. But it’s especially fitting for Schwartz, who could be the X factor for the Blues in the playoffs. If the Blues can score consistently — they lost just once in regulation this season when they scored at least three goals — a deep playoff run is entirely within reason.
The 21-year-old from Saskatchewan had a breakthrough campaign, scoring 25 goals with 31 assists for 56 points and registering a remarkable plus-minus rating of 28 in 80 games.
"I feel like I improved and I was a big part of the team," the left-handed sniper said. "I haven’t really sat back and evaluated it, but I’m happy with how my first full season went. … I didn’t put a number on points or anything like that (for season goals). I just wanted to come in here and do my part and play my role and contribute, and I think I did a good job of that."
Schwartz’s season stats are similar to some of the top scorers in the NHL at the same age: Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf (58 points in 82 games at age 21) and Corey Perry (44 in 82 games at age 21), Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux (47 points in 82 games at age 22), San Jose’s Joe Pavelski (59 points in 80 games at age 24) and Patrick Marleau (52 points in 81 games at age 21).
"He’s having a career year and he’s been a great performer for us," Blues forward Brenden Morrow said. "It’s going to be tougher for him in the playoffs. It’s a different game. It’s a heavier game. He’s going to have to fight through probably more than he had in the regular season, but you see him work in practice and then the things this kid does, I think he’s going to find a way. He’ll will a way to get himself in the right spots and create chances for his linemates."
Schwartz, who averaged 17:32 per game, led St. Louis in plus-minus rating and was third in goals and fifth in assists. His three short-handed goals were a team high and tied for the fifth-most in the NHL.
"Jaden works hard in practice, works hard in every game, and he’s a great player," forward Derek Roy said. "He’s got great instincts, a great shot, so moving forward he’s gonna be a key component for us and we need him going well throughout the playoffs."
The Blues will need their best players to step up in this series against the Blackhawks or they won’t be around very long.
When St. Louis was at its best this season, it could count on Alexander Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes to lead the way offensively but became even more dangerous with complementary scoring from their young emerging forwards, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Schwartz has learned from the Blues’ playoff experiences the past two seasons, including the six games he played against the Kings a year ago.
"Going through last year and being around the locker room the year before that definitely helps for me," he said. "Just last year, being up 2-0 and letting it slip, you know it’s never over. You just have to stick with it. Obviously, you have to make adjustments. But you never want to give up. You want to stick with what you’re doing. Every game last year was a one-goal game, so you have to expect close games — and that means all the little things are magnified."
No Blues forward played more than Schwartz’s 80 games this season, which was the most he has ever played in a season.
Coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday that the youngster, who spent much of the season bouncing back and forth between the team’s first and second lines, wore down late in the season as he was counted on for more minutes with other players out of the lineup with injuries.
"I think this rest has done him a world of good," Hitchcock said. "I was a little surprised he skated today and stayed out, but he’s a guy that’s really going to benefit from time off. He was pushed up the lineup in minutes, really from the last month, through necessity. And I thought at the end of the season he really wore down. And he seems way more refreshed today and way more alert and everything with a big smile on his face, too."
If the Canadian forward contributes in the playoffs like he showed he was capable of during the regular season, the Blues will likely be smiling, too.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.