Overachieving under the radar

by Brent Marcotte || AHL On The Beat Archive

Advancing through the ranks in professional sports, many intangible factors exist that can determine whether someone achieves their childhood dream of making it to the “show” or fall short.

In the National Hockey League, superstars arise from many different paths. Many top draft picks with high expectations live up to the hype and others fall by the wayside. There are also the other guys who either go undrafted or lurk in the shadow of the top prospects that have maximized their talents and persevered through the trials of minor league hockey to earn a permanent spot on the big club.

Portland Pirates defenseman Drew Schiestel has relished in the role of underdog in his second year of professional hockey, and is starting to reap the benefits.

Going back to his junior hockey career, Schiestel has never received All-Star honors. However, he does not see it as personal slam, but as motivation to keep proving his worth in achieving the ultimate goal of a NHL call-up.

“It is never a bad thing flying under the radar,” said Schiestel. “A lot of people might just look at the top draft picks and stat sheet and take what they want off that, but it is great when you can contribute and people recognize the good things you do out there on the ice.”

Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Schiestel officially began his quest for the NHL during the 2009-10 season with Portland following a successful four-year career with the Mississauga/Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League.

While in juniors he received his first taste of the underdog role, playing alongside Alex Pietrangelo, the St. Louis Blues’ top pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Moving on to Portland, Schiestel again flew under the radar playing alongside Dennis Persson (a Sabres first-round selection in 2006) and T.J. Brennan (Buffalo’s first selection in 2007) on the Pirates blueline.

Never seeing less hype as an issue, he has thrived in his role with the Pirates in not only furthering his development but also being a team player who takes it upon himself to assist others in their progress.

“Last year we had an older based team up front and on the defensive side too,” said Schiestel about his different role from last season. “This year our team is pretty young especially on the defensive side. I took a lot from guys like Joe DiPenta and Mike Kostka, veterans with experience. T.J. (Brennan) and I are not the oldest guys as second-year players, we know how hard it is coming in and adjusting to this level. Now we can help guys like Nick Crawford and Alex Biega who are coming in as rookies and getting a lot of ice time. They’re coming along nicely and it shows on the ice when we’re winning games. It shows how their development has come along since the year started.”

Being a well-rounded defenseman is imperative to moving on to the next level, and Schiestel’s offensive improvement combined with solid defensive play (plus/minus rating of plus-15) has resulted in his first career All-Star selection. NHL rosters are littered with past AHL all-stars, and one can see that it is a massive bound in the right direction to be selected to compete with the best of the league on one stage.

“It’s a great honor (to be selected to play in the AHL All-Star Classic), and a reflection of my progress over the last year and a half,” the 22 year-old Hamilton, Ont., native said. “Especially lately we have been doing really well and it shows how good we have been doing as of late.”

Currently this season Schiestel has blown away his offensive statistics from his rookie campaign, registering 23 points (5-18-23) in 45 games compared to earning 12 points (1-11-12) in 52 games last year. Anchoring a youthful blueline with rookies such as Biega (plus-17 rating), Schiestel’s role on the team has been expanded from his first year as he is called upon in most power-play and penalty kill opportunities.

The rapid development on the defensive side of the ice combined with one of the AHL’s top offensive units (third in the league in scoring at 3.5 goals per game) has resulted in a well-balanced Portland attack that has them at the top of the Atlantic Division.

“Last year, I would have to say it was a little bit of a learning curve for myself,” Schiestel admitted. “I know offensively I have the ability to be the power-play guy and contribute when I have the chance to. I was really excited about the defensive part of it more than anything. You always want to be a complete player and I have been really happy with the plus/minus this year. I knew that if I stayed confident and patient that the points would come and sure enough they have been lately.”

It was announced on Thursday that Schiestel will miss the All-Star Classic due to injury, but the Pirates will still be represented in Hershey by top prospect Luke Adam. While Schiestel has compiled numbers quietly and performed the gritty work, Adam has lived up the high expectations in ranking among the league leaders in rookie scoring (25 points in 25 games) and receiving multiple call-ups to Buffalo where has skated in 18 games while scoring four points (3-1-4).

Receiving high praise from the coaching staff due to his progression and leadership, Pirates head coach Kevin Dineen commented on Schiestel’s All-Star bid stating, “I think it’s a real honor and it’s a reflection of our team that we have a lot of D that are similar in some ways and Drew has stood out with his skills. I think he has taken a higher level of responsibility in his defensive zone and I think it’s a nice reflection on him and our group as a whole.”