If Cam Schilling is living the dream, he’s a realist, too.
A career minor-leaguer with three NHL call-ups and a total of six big-league games on his resumé, Schilling understood the role he was intended for: a journeyman defenceman added in the off-season to provide depth and experience for a young, but talented AHL team.
It was a label the unrestricted free agent from Carmel, Ind., was already accustomed to when he signed a one-year contract with the Winnipeg Jets this past summer.
"At this point in my career, the door is pretty much closing at 29 years old," Schilling said Thursday. "Even if I do get called up, it’s going to be a couple of games. It’s not going to be a full season unless there’s a ton of injuries. But I know where I’m at."
But something extraordinary has happened.
Schilling was shipped to the Manitoba Moose, Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate, following a strong training camp (that part was expected) and the Moose surged to the best start in franchise history through 50 games and were leading the Central Division with a 32-11-4-3 record entering Thursday’s action against the visiting Grand Rapids Griffins.
Schilling has been a big part of Manitoba’s success.
In 45 games, he had five goals and 25 points, a gaudy plus-38 rating and received mid-season recognition as an AHL all-star. He plays important minutes in all situations for Manitoba while also providing veteran guidance for defence partner Sami Niku, the precociously talented Finn who is lighting up the AHL as a 21-year-old rookie.
Schilling has encouraged Niku to be more vocal and emphasized the importance of gap control in refining his defensive game. Consider the message received.
"I really like playing with him because he has played six years pro and he knows exactly how to play here," Niku said. "Sometimes, he tells me what I should do. The game is so different here than in Finland."
He may be a grizzled veteran to Niku, but Schilling believes he’s still learning, which fits his description of himself as a late bloomer.
"I grew up in Indiana. I didn’t get the coaching guys get, especially in Canada," Schilling said. "They teach you everything, so every year in hockey, I’ve learned a lot. I learned on the fly. I remember how raw I was my first year pro. I was still really good, I had the raw talent and speed, but I didn’t have the mind to think the game as well. Every year, I think I’ve thought the game better and better."
He grew in other ways, sprouting eight inches (to 6-2) between his freshmen and senior years in high school, but it still wasn’t enough to convince college recruiters.
In 2008-09, Schilling was a walk-on at Miami University (Ohio) and didn’t play until the second half of the season, but eventually helped his school advance to the national championship game as a freshmen. He returned as a sophomore, but only got a scholarship after threatening to turn pro.
Signed as a free agent by the Washington Capitals out of school, Schilling spent most of the next five years in the AHL hoping to make an impression on the Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks and finally, the Los Angeles Kings. Stuck in Rockford, Ill., last season, he asked for a trade and a change of scenery and finished up with the Kings’ farm team in Ontario, Calif.
"I was an afterthought in Chicago, that’s kinda why I asked out," Schilling said. "Even going to L.A., I wasn’t going to be a call-up, but at least it was a fresh start and in Rockford we had a terrible team. If I was going to be in the American League, I might as well go to a place that was a little bit more fun."
As the Jets’ brain trust pondered how to remake the farm team after a poor 2016-17, Moose head coach Pascal Vincent felt Schilling was a worthy free-agent target in the off-season, yet he didn’t fully appreciate his game.
"We knew he could skate, we knew he would compete hard and he could bring some offence, but we didn’t know how good he was offensively," Vincent said.
"The season he’s having is a combination of his experience — he’s a real mature person — but I think he’s at a time when he’s peaking in his career as far as being strong physically, skating ability, understanding how to play as a defenceman, when to join the rush and not, and he’s got a lot of confidence in himself."
Vincent once assumed veteran pros in the late 20s or early 30s had accumulated enough experience and their performance had plateaued, but he’s seen many examples of growth later in careers, including Schilling.
"A defenceman like him, maybe he’s putting himself in position for his next contract and his next contract might put him in the NHL," Vincent said.
"It might be with us, it might not be with us, but he’s certainly doing what it takes to give himself a chance... And with us, you don’t know. He’s been having a good season and you’re one or two injuries from being called up. He’s in the mix every time there’s a call-up for a defenceman. Who knows?"
"I’ve had a lot of opportunity here," Schilling said.
"I was kind of labelled in the beginning of my career as a defensive defenceman and didn’t get much power-play time.
"Points-wise it’s been a career year and obviously we’re doing really well and that helps, too."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.