WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – At the start of the 2020-21 season, Tim Schaller set a goal for himself. He candidly revealed to reporters that his plan for the year was to use the season as a “reset” in an attempt to reach the National Hockey League again.
Schaller performed more than admirably through his “reset” season, skating in all 32 games and tying for the team lead with 10 goals. But at the end of the year, the 30-year-old forward was candid once again when discussing a realization he had during his time with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“I still think I can play in the NHL, but I’m a realist in the sense of these young guys nowadays are so, so good that maybe my time has passed,” Schaller said. “But I’m still going to work hard and try to get an NHL deal. If that works out, then I’ll be ecstatic. And if it doesn’t, you know, hopefully I can find a job somewhere, and I’ll still be playing hockey for a living.”
Schaller’s future may be unclear at the moment, but if he isn’t able to make the jump back to the NHL level, he seems open to embracing a new chapter in his career. The title of that chapter: Veteran Leader.
Schaller often looks back on his time as a rookie with the Rochester Americans in 2013-14 and his admiration for the leaders on that team. Players like Drew Bagnall, Patrick Kaleta and Matt Ellis still hold a place in his heart, as to this day Schaller refers to them as some of the best locker room leaders he’s seen through eight years of pro hockey.
“I’ve taken a lot of what they’ve taught me, and I’ve kind of applied that this past year with the young guys,” he said. “I’d love to be that that kind of guy, the go-to guy that younger guys look up to, aren’t afraid to ask questions and, about off ice stuff, on-ice stuff, whatever it is. I think I can take pride and something like that.”
Throughout the season, Schaller lived up to that aspiration. Often, players would approach him for advice. Whether the topics were related to on-ice or off-ice subject-matter, Schaller felt honored the overwhelmingly young locker room sought his guidance. He also said he made sure to pick up his teammates when the team was slumping during season.
It would have been easy for Schaller to be not as proactive in a leadership tole with the team, given the uncertainty of his contract status. He came to training camp on a tryout and was eventually given a contract, but it was only a one-year deal (in a shortened season, nonetheless). He could have chosen to focus solely on his own personal goals and been justified in doing so. But he didn’t. He made the time for every rookie who needed a helping hand or “a pat on the butt”, as he called it.
Still, that doesn’t mean the nature of his expiring deal didn’t weigh on him throughout the year.
“One-year contracts are tough,” Schaller said. “You have to take every game like it’s a tryout, whether it’s for the management here or management with other teams.”
In terms of whether or not he’ll return and fully embrace that leadership role with the Penguins again, that’s still up in the air. But the way he spoke of his teammates suggests he’d be open to the idea.
“I don’t think my whole life I’ve been on a team where every single game you can say that every single guy on the team worked hard,” Schaller said. “Even when there were a couple losing streaks, it was crazy to see that every single player top to bottom, worked their butt off for all 60 minutes of every hockey game. That was one of the more impressive things I’ve ever seen.”