You don’t usually see competitors in any sport, let alone hockey, get better after they turn 30.
But that’s exactly the way things have played out with Luke Schenn, who will turn 34 in November. You could make the case that Schenn played his best hockey in the NHL in the spring, when he averaged 17 strong, confident minutes for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs following a regular season spent mostly on the Vancouver Canucks’ top pair. This, for a 2008 first-round pick who landed in the minors just before his 30th birthday.
Schenn’s resurrection, which earned him a three-year contract from the Nashville Predators worth $8.25 million, didn’t happen by accident.
During a wide-ranging conversation on the eve of his first training camp in Nashville, an introspective Schenn detailed all that it took for him to rise again, what his return to the Leafs meant, and why he thinks his former team in Toronto has what it takes to eventually get over the hump.
Note: Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I was looking back, you had one-year deals for a few years there, a two-year deal and now you get a three-year deal. When you go back to when you were in the AHL, did you think your career would get back to this point? Did you have a sense that maybe you could do something to get to this point where now you’re a full-time NHLer again playing an important role?
Well, when I first got down to San Diego (in the AHL in 2018), I thought like, yeah, this very well could be the end of the road. But then I started finding my game again and feeling better about my game. Dallas Eakins really helped me. He was the coach of San Diego. And then I started working with Adam Oates. And then once I started working on that and figuring some things out that were really helpful to my game, I told my dad and Brayden, my brother, “I think I could play another five years. I just need to get my foot in the door and get an opportunity again.”
And I didn’t know how I was going to play five years. And it’s a tough thing to say when you’re in the minors for the first time in your career at 29 years old and 700-and-something games (into your NHL career), when you’re passed by by the entire league, making league minimum — you’re thinking, well, how the heck am I going to play another five years when you’ve just been passed up? But I kind of believed I could. And a lot of people say, well, you gotta reinvent your game, which I disagreed (with). You don’t have to reinvent. My thought process was to evolve, evolve my game and adjust to the way that things were trending.
So I put a lot of work in and, eventually, I thought if I can continue to work on some things and you go from having zero leash to having a little bit of a leash and you kind of gradually build over time and work on things on the side, I started to believe it. I didn’t know how it was going to happen or if it could happen, but I personally believed it could. I just needed to get back in and be given an opportunity, which I was given in Vancouver my first time around with the Canucks (in 2019).
What gave you that belief to think you could play another five years? Where did that come from?
I would literally look at rosters, and I saw the way that the league was trending. But yet there’s still a need for, you know, physical defencemen. And the teams that were winning Cups had physical, bigger defencemen. I think like the first eight, nine years of my career, 10 years of my career, I was told not to handle the puck. Like the whole thing was get it and the coaches call it no stickhandling, no dusting it off. Just get it and move it — quick. I started working with Adam Oates and he’s like, “That’s insane. You have to stickhandle the puck, you have to make plays. You can’t just get it and sling it up there to no one. You gotta be able to make plays.”
So we started working on a bunch of stuff. He said the hardest play in all of hockey is a defenceman going back on a puck under pressure because there’s spin on the puck, it’s rolling sometimes, you’ve got a guy on you, you’re trying to protect yourself and avoid contact or, you know, not get hurt. And yet, (you have to think), where is your defence partner, is the goalie in the net, where’s your centreman, where’s your wingers, are you able to make plays to them and where’s their forechecker? So you’re going back under pressure with all this pressure and yet you’ve got to make the 5- to 10-foot breakout pass. I kind of got stuck in a thing where I was always told, “Don’t handle the puck, which is where you get yourself in trouble.” All of a sudden, you get a reputation like you can’t move the puck. And on top of that, too, you know, being a bigger, heavier guy, every team and every coach says, “Well, work on your skating.” Well, being 230 pounds and being an older guy, getting way faster and totally changing your stride, it’s not super realistic. So we started thinking of other ways where you’re not really in foot races every shift because you’re thinking the game at a different level, you’re reading the game differently than other guys. So just a combination of things that really helped me.
I got Adam Oates to come work with me in Utica. I asked Ryan Johnson, who was the assistant GM of the Canucks, and Trent Cull (the coach of Utica), if Adam Oates could come work with me in Utica when I got traded to Vancouver. And I spent like three days with him there. On the ice (with him) for a few hours a day, plus that was on top of the Utica Comets practice. And then I got my game going a little bit. I played (seven) games with Utica and then I got called up to Vancouver. And once I got a crack with the Canucks I felt like, I want to say, totally revived almost of how I could play and how I could contribute.
And then I ended up in Tampa (in 2019). I got put on waivers after two preseason games and had to do the same thing all over. I had great conversations with (Tampa Bay Lightning GM) Julien BriseBois and told him where I thought I was at. He had to make some decisions based on the salary cap. I said I wasn’t going to go down to Syracuse for the year because my wife was also pregnant with our second at the time; we just moved down to Tampa. So I said I’d give it a couple weeks and fly back and forth between Tampa on weekdays because games were on weekends to start the year. And then I ended up getting called up and stayed for the remainder (of the season). Same thing, I was kind of back to zero there.
But I always thought that eventually, if I continue to fill a void and play a role, that eventually — I just kept believing in it, no matter what people thought.
Well, one of the things I noticed about you in Toronto is how much you worked at it — before practice, after practice. Did that become part of your routine, just working on your puck skills? Is that part of the rebirth?
The final two Leaf regulars to leave the ice after the last practice before Game 1: Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn, both former Cup winners: pic.twitter.com/KPlUOFrSlf
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) April 17, 2023
Yeah, for sure. I still do it every day, work on it all summer and even in Nashville, too. Ryan O’Reilly, he’s sort of the same thing. My brother used to tell me about it every day, what he did in St. Louis. How he was the first guy on, last guy off. And you’re not going a million miles per hour before and after practice. You’re just constantly touching the puck.
The one thing I notice about NHL practices is you could go through four practices in a row as a defenceman and not even touch the puck. And then all of a sudden you get into a game situation and you’re supposed to make plays under pressure. But the way the practices are designed in the NHL, it’s not for a defenceman moving the puck. It’s for taking a three-on-two rush, taking a two-on-one, doing a box-out drill, doing (defensive) zone coverage, working on the penalty kill, looking for a shot pass. So I sort of realized you’re actually not even touching the puck in practices, and if you are, it’s for a split-second. And then you touch the puck, I don’t even know, I’m guessing 40 times a game.
So then I was like, well, the only way to figure this out is before and after practice (to) keep getting puck touches in. So that’s what I think has helped. And then in the summer create a bit of a routine that is good.
So in light of all that, obviously you were playing big minutes in Vancouver last season. But playing the kind of minutes that you played in the playoffs with the Leafs, did you prove anything to yourself? Did it cement that belief, playing that many minutes, playing that important of a role?
I played, like you said, bigger minutes in Vancouver and played with Quinn Hughes. But then getting switched over to Toronto, there’s the pressure of the playoffs. But I felt more confident. Sometimes you play heavier minutes, but coaches are not exactly looking for matchups (with you). But in Toronto in the playoffs, me and (Morgan Rielly), we were playing against Tampa’s top lines, we were playing big minutes in the third period, tight games. Same thing against Florida.
I think, if anything, I was just able to build confidence and trust myself that you can just play big minutes in the regular season, but in the playoffs where it’s that much faster, it’s that much more of a physical game, intense game, where every little play matters more, is when I realized the work I was putting in — I was confident out there. I was enjoying it, too. I wasn’t stressed about it. I didn’t feel the pressure of Toronto like I did as a young guy. It’s just because I appreciate where I’m at in my career. I’ve won the Cup, so I appreciate the highs. I’ve been in the minors late in my career, so I know the lows. I think where I’m at right now, I appreciate it and I don’t take it for granted.
I still have goals of wanting to get better. It’s just not the stress of it, though, not knowing what the game plan is to get better or listening to outside noise. Right now, I shut that off and I just focus on what I’m doing and continue to try to figure out ways to get better.
That’s how it looked. It looked like you were in control and not overwhelmed at all.
I appreciate that, thank you.
Did it give you some closure, coming back and playing the way you did? Obviously, you left here as a young guy. Obviously, it didn’t end the way you wanted. But was there some sense of closure in being able to come back and play how you really wanted?
Yeah, I mean, obviously coming in as a young guy to Toronto, I really had no idea the expectation. I knew what I was drafted for, as far as being a physical defenceman and trying to play heavy minutes. And then right when I came in, the league sort of changed a little bit in the sense where (defencemen) were jumping up in the play a little more and trying to contribute numbers. And I looked at guys around me that were being drafted high, and they were putting up numbers. And really even in junior, I didn’t even hit 30 points. So all of a sudden, I’m almost trying to figure out what my identity is as a player. And I think it took me a while to where now I’m at the point where I know what my identity is.
And as far as closure, I mean, I don’t even know if I look at it as closure. I look at it as I’m really happy I got the opportunity. I always kind of dreamt of coming back and playing in Toronto. And obviously, you know, I didn’t think that would be a possibility, especially when you’re going through waivers and you’re looking at it and you’re like, “Well, they passed on me again. I think that they could use a physical defenceman, but they passed on me again. So it’s probably never going to happen.” And when it finally happened, I was just really grateful for the opportunity.
When I first put on that jersey again for the first time in Calgary, after I got traded, I almost couldn’t believe it. Like, being out there in warmups, I actually couldn’t believe it. I don’t think of it as closure. I was just really grateful for the opportunity to get to play there again. And the fans were always so good to me. I love the organization and, unfortunately, sort of the business side as far as (coming) back kind of got in the way with the salary cap and everything like that. But there’s no question that I loved every moment playing in Toronto and (I’m) really, really grateful that I got that second opportunity. I could feel the support from the fans and everything. It worked out the way it was supposed to.
I’m happy to be in Nashville now. We got a great group of guys here, too. But there’s no question that getting the chance to go back and play playoff hockey with the Leafs is something I didn’t think would happen, and it was very special to get that opportunity.
You know the passion of the fan base as well as anyone. What would you tell a Leaf fan who asked you why they should believe that this team — you’ve been with that group, you’ve been in that room — has it in them to eventually get over the hump? You’ve won Cups. You know what it takes.
Well, I’m a big believer in — I think they’ve got a great culture there. And I think that the guys that they’re building around are only getting better, and those experiences only help. You look at Tampa when they won. They lost out in the playoffs a bunch of times — in the finals, in the semifinals, in the first round — and eventually they got over the hump. You need the experience to eventually get there. Auston Matthews is a total pro. Mitch Marner, I know he takes heat at times, but he puts up 100 points, plays at both ends. I’d put him on my team all day. He’s an unbelievable guy. Morgan Rielly, he’s a true No. 1 (defenceman). You’ve got (William) Nylander. You’ve got John Tavares. He’s a great captain and puts in the work; like, it’s an unmatched sort of thing. So they got all the right pieces and they’ve got some good depth guys, too. It’s obviously a tough market, but the guys in the room, they want it more or as much as anyone in the league. They obviously have a great group of guys there, and I was impressed with the culture that they’ve built there since my first go around.
(Top photo: Derek Cain / Getty Images)