There appears to be conclusive evidence that a pipeline from Edmonton to the Gas City has been functioning with efficiency in recent years. As a result, the Medicine Hat Tigers continue to benefit from talent developed throughout Alberta’s capital region.
A case in point is defenseman David Schlemko, who has become a reliable veteran during his three seasons in Medicine Hat. While he has perhaps gone unnoticed behind the likes of Cam Barker (CHI) and Kris Russell (CBJ) in recent years, the value of his contributions has not been lost on Willi Desjardins, Tigers general manager and head coach.
"David has played real well for us — actually, he played real well last year, too," Desjardins said during the Tigers road swing through the Okanagan Valley early in January. "He’s a good power-play guy, he reads the ice and he’s patient with the puck."
Schlemko grew up playing in the Knights of Columbus area in Edmonton. During his bantam draft year, he played with the bantam K of C Squires. In midget hockey, he played for the K of C Pats and well-known local coach Sandro Pisani, the brother of Edmonton Oilers forward Fernando Pisani.
Text”>While the NHL Entry Draft has always been a major media event, the annual WHL Bantam Draft has also risen in profile over the past decade. Schlemko was the first player selected by the Tigers in 2002. He went 62nd overall in what was a particularly successful draft for Desjardins and crew.
Desjardins agreed. "You know, it’s funny, we got Schlemko, Gord Baldwin (CAL) and Russell all the same year and we didn’t have a pick in that draft in the first three rounds.
"So, we did a good job getting all those guys late. We also got Darren Helm (DET) late that year in the ninth round, so those guys have all been good acquisitions."
With the likes of Barker, Russell and Helm playing important roles for Team Canada at the annual World Junior Championships during the past three years, Schlemko is one of the defensemen who has been looked upon to step up during the prolonged absence of his upper-echelon teammates.
"Barker and Russell are world-class players and I know a lot of our d-men have learned a lot from them both," Schlemko said. "When they’re gone, it’s quite a big hole to fill.
"You just have to be careful not to try to do too much. Of course, you have to step up and take over some of the offensive load. I try to keep things simple, but I’m confident with the puck and my abilities to go out and help the team to get wins."
"Oh, he can for sure," Desjardins confirmed. "He’s always been a key guy for us. He just continues to get better and I think he’ll get noticed and probably somebody will pick him up this year. He plays with a lot of guys here, mostly Baldwin, but we do mix it up quite a bit."
Other key defensemen in Medicine Hat with Edmonton area roots are Jordan Bendfeld (PHO) of Leduc, and Shayne Brown (’07 eligible) of Stony Plain. Schlemko recalls meeting some of the "locals" during his early days in the Hat.
"It’s always tough at first when you leave home," Schlemko said. "You meet new players, maybe some from your hometown that you played against and maybe didn’t like. But you start to build friendships and that’s been kind of neat."
In addition to the Alberta-born crew, the Tigers added some more veteran savvy to the defensive corps by acquiring Sartell, Minnesota native Michael Sauer (NYR) via the trade route with the Portland Winter Hawks. Playing in front of 20-year-old goaltender Matt Keetley (CAL), the Tigers will be entirely focused on a run to the Memorial Cup in Vancouver when Russell and Helm return from their stint in Sweden at the WJC.
So far this season, Schlemko has added valuable scoring from the backend in Medicine Hat, collecting five goals and 40 assists in 49 games. The numbers give him career highs in assists and points. Through January, the valuable rearguard has been nursing a host of nagging injuries.
"I guess being on the top power-play unit here helps," Schlemko laughed. "The first couple years here, being behind Barker and Russell, they’re tough guys to step by and take their spot.
"But as I’ve gotten older and more confident, I’ve also gotten a better feel for the league and I know other players better now. You work hard in the summer and get better as a player and come in with more confidence."
When told about Schlemko’s comments regarding his play behind Barker and Russell on the power play, Desjardins was quick to slough off the comments.
"David has been a first unit guy for us for awhile," Desjardins confirmed. "Last year, Barker only played 25 games for us. He’s exceptional on the power play because he reads the ice so well and has such great composure. No, he’s always been a first unit guy."
Desjardins said Schlemko has become much more than just a depth player in Medicine Hat.
"David is good defensively and he’s just been real good for us," Desjardins reiterated. "He certainly one of the reasons we have had some success this year."
Schlemko’s stock continues to rise among WHL defensemen and with the Tigers atop the Western Conference standing, a long playoff run will only help to showcase what Desjardins suggests in an underrated skill set.
"I’m not really sure why the scouts haven’t been too high on him in the past," Desjardins wondered while sounding a tad incredulous. "But they’re certainly asking about him now. He’s about 90 percent now, so we’re excited to see how he plays over the next couple of months."
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