COLUMBUS – The minutes dropped and the confidence shook.
A second-year defenceman in the NHL back in 2009-10, Luke Schenn was admittedly battling the unquantifiable demons of a sophomore slump. After a rookie season that wowed folks in Toronto, Schenn couldn't help but hear the whispers of the dreaded second-year blues.
"The difference between now and then is, I can say this honestly, I actually lost confidence back then," Schenn told the Leaf Report. "I remember clear as day what it was like to go through a situation like that where I think my minutes were even around some nights like 6-7 minutes a night. And at that point too, there was a whole bunch of rumours that I'd be sent down to the American League and all that. So there was just a lot more going on mentally."
It's not been a catastrophe this fall - others have simply played better and the team has won – but there has been a noticeable dip in ice-time and not coincidentally self-surety in the game of the fourth-year defenceman.
On Thursday night at the Prudential Center in New Jersey – the night of his 22nd birthday – Schenn played just ten minutes and one second, his lowest total since December 26th, 2009. In the month of October he logged over 20 minutes on only one occasion, the season opener against Montreal. Over the next eleven games, he played fewer than 15 minutes in all but two games. Not once did that occur last season. He's been replaced in the top four by veteran Mike Komisarek, who has assumed his intended place alongside John-Michael Liles.
Ice time is tied directly to the confidence of the coaching staff and right now it's clear that Ron Wilson has greater faith in options other than Schenn.
Admittedly distressed by his struggles and the surrounding drama he encountered as a sophomore, Schenn is pledging to remain confident this time around.
"I feel great on the ice, haven't lost any confidence, staying positive throughout the thing," he explained prior to the game against the Devils. "I know my opportunity will come. We've got four defencemen right now who are playing great – obviously ahead of me – and they're playing big minutes right now and obviously deservingly so.
"I'm not going to get too rattled or frustrated about it. It's part of the game. Every player goes through this, probably every year, and definitely throughout their career. You just learn how to deal with it and at the end of the day it's not a worry because I know that this isn't going to last forever."
At times it appears that nothing is breaking in Schenn's favour, perhaps a mix of bad luck and the uncertainty that exists presently in his game.
Witness a perfect example in New Jersey.
Stuck stationary in the neutral zone with partner Jake Gardiner stepping up on a play in the offensive zone, Schenn saw the puck quickly ricochet in his direction. Before he could properly react, the puck had bounced past his stick with David Clarkson racing by, beating Jonas Gustavsson for a breakaway goal in what concluded as a 5-3 Leafs win.
Wilson previously suggested that Schenn was putting too much pressure on himself, perhaps tied to the weight of the five-year contract – worth $17.5 million – that he signed in mid-September.
"I don't even think of the contract," said Schenn, "especially when I'm out on the ice.
"I don't have to change my game around and try to be crazy offensive or nothing like that. Stick to my strengths I guess and continue to play physically and solid defensively; that's the reason that got me here in the first place."
Schenn is still a very young man by any standard, but especially those of an NHL defenceman. In the moments after he and the Leafs agreed to a new contract, Brian Burke gushed that Schenn's "improvement's been a rapid ascent in terms of his skill development".
Point is there's no shortage of time for improvement.
"I've got real, high expectations for himself," he concluded, "probably higher than anyone's got for me. This isn't going to last forever. Like I said, I feel good out there. It's obviously great that our team's winning right now and for right now I'm just trying to help whichever way I can."