by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Maybe Manitoba Moose coach Scott Arniel was bluffing.
Maybe he had no intention of benching rookie goalie Cory Schneider against Lake Erie on Dec. 15.
But when the coach called Schneider into his office that morning, he was going to make his prized prospect squirm a bit.
“He was like, ‘I’m going to play you. I know I shouldn’t,”’ Schneider recalled. “You have your wires crossed.”
Schneider was happy to escape with the tepid endorsement. The night before, also against Lake Erie, he was yanked after allowing three goals in the first period. When he walked into Arniel’s office the next day, he was half expecting to be handed a plane ticket to oblivion.
“That was the bottom, there,” Schneider said of the short night. “It was the first time I’d been pulled in a long time. I was a little worried. Whenever you are trying, and it doesn’t work, it’s a little frustrating.”
Well, it looks like all that Schneider needed was a little job insecurity.
He beat the Monsters in that rematch. And then he won his next game. And his next two after that.
All of a sudden, the Moose had the netminder that Vancouver saw when it grabbed him in the first round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Schneider’s play has taken off since December, as he has dropped his overall goals-against average from 3.44 to 2.82 and boosted his save percentage from .882 to .897.
“We rode him hard. We talked to him,” Arniel said. “Then we put him out there and let him learn on the fly. He’s really turned it around.”
Schneider knows all about learning from disappointment. In each of his past two seasons at Boston College, he took his team to the NCAA title game.
Both times, Schneider was nailed with close losses. That’s the type of trauma that can leave players screaming at night for years down the road. These days, Schneider just talks about how thankful he is to have experienced that atmosphere.
“He seems to have a good head on his shoulders,” said Manitoba goalie coach Rick St. Croix. “He’s picking out what’s good about (the losses). Every time you get closer to the ball, and get the opportunity, you’re going to be successful.”
That was expected to be the plan just as quickly as Schneider shed his Eagles jersey after his junior season for one with the Moose. But through October and November, he stumbled, posting a 3-5 record with a 3.44 GAA and .882 save percentage.
The problem was that Schneider was more worried about not doing anything wrong than just going out and doing the most important thing of all – getting in the way of the puck when it matters most.
“It’s not necessarily how you play (as a pro). It’s more about the timely saves than the number of saves you make,” he said. “It’s all about the win column. Winning is important in college. But college is more of a development league. Here, while you are developing, it is your job. The heat is turned up a little.
“Sometimes goalies get too wrapped up in the technique. All of a sudden, you have a million things in your head, and you forget there’s a guy coming down and you have to stop it.”
Schneider added a little more devil-may-care attitude to his mechanics. During his slow start, he noticed he was hanging back too deep in the crease. Now, he’s bolting out more up top, challenging shooters to beat him with the perfect shot.
“He’s focusing on that first shot,” Arniel said. “It’s not worrying where the rebounds go, thinking it might be a back-door play, second-guessing himself.”
Schneider is soaking up loads of NHL-caliber primers that go beyond just playing. Manitoba is unique among AHL cities for its loyal, passionate fan base and scrutinizing media. Though Schneider was used to the spotlight at BC, coming into Winnipeg as a No. 1 pick at the most glamorous position in the sport is a different kind of beast altogether.
“Yeah, it’s been tough. It affected me more in the beginning than I realized,” Schneider said. “I was trying to meet expectations too soon. But the most common thing I’ve heard this year is don’t force it. Despite what people want, it’s going to take time. Once you understand that, those 3-2 losses become 3-2 wins.”
Arniel is certainly on board with that. Instead of force-feeding Schneider minutes — even when he’s deserved them — Arniel has afforded the newcomer a chance to observe one of the best. Starter Drew MacIntyre still gets the heavy rotation of games, almost to the tune of a 3-to-1 ratio.
“It’s real easy to throw (Schneider) to the wolves. That’s why we’re taking it slow with him,” Arniel said. “All the pressure in today’s NHL is on the goaltenders. When you get picked in the first round, there is always going to be pressure. The biggest thing is being patient with goaltenders.”
Schneider is willing to wait. Trips to Arniel’s office these days seem a lot less foreboding, especially as Schneider keeps forcing his boss into the right kinds of tough decisions about playing time.
“I’m looking to give coach more to think about. I think I provide him with a good alternative (to MacIntyre),” Schneider said. “It’s my first year in professional hockey. I’m not going to figure it all out in one month. Every game is important. If coach gives me any game, he has the faith in me to get the win.”
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.