WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the dictionary of the San Jose Sharks, under the tab labeled D (for Defensemen), to put on one's dance shoes means to get stepping on the ice. “A little do-si-do around the forward or whatever it might be,” Brenden Dillon says.
The term is new, installed into club lexicon this preseason, after the defending Western Conference champions started seeing their newest addition’s strengths up close. While Dillon’s third-pair partner does not fancy himself much of a real-life dancer—maybe at teammates’ weddings if the mood and music strike—David Schlemko gladly boogies at the offensive blue line. “Just moving our feet to get out of trouble,” he explains. “It’s always been part of my game.”
Indeed, mobility ranked among the main reasons San Jose gave Schlemko the longest and richest deal of his NHL career last July 1, a four-year, $8.4 million bargain considering the 29-year-old’s track record. At the time, GM Doug Wilson had hoped to add a stronger puck-mover—read: slicker dancing—beside Dillon, where Roman Polak had spent the bulk of the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
Now, among defensemen with at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Schlemko ranks sixth in shot attempt differential (56.01%), according to Corsica.hockey, including an eye-popping plus-19 against the Islanders on Oct. 18. He has only three assists through 15 games for the Sharks (9–6–0), but was never expected to pile on points. Instead, he’s skating with the second power play unit and killing penalties in a pinch, pirouetting away from forecheckers and pushing possession up the ice.
“He’s not afraid to try things,” Dillon says. “He’s usually really successful with it, which creates more offense for us.”
Not bad for an undrafted free agent on his fifth NHL team in three seasons. Not bad for someone who’s been waived, claimed, waived again, claimed again, scratched, and injured in freaky fashion. Not bad for an Edmonton native who began playing professional hockey a now-defunct league, for a now-defunct team based in Arizona.
“He’s always a guy that flew under the radar,” says Allain Roy, Schlemko’s agent. “He’s had a lot of weird stuff happen in his career.”
Long after San Jose finished its morning skate at Verizon Center last week, Schlemko stuck around to chat in the visiting locker room, much in agreement with his representative, Roy. “It hasn’t been an easy road,” he said, “but no complaints.”
Six years ago, at David and Kristen Schlemko’s wedding, the hired videographer went around the ceremony filming congratulatory messages. Not until later, upon receiving the final tape, did the couple learn which guest had delivered the longest side speech. It was Willie Desjardins, Vancouver’s current coach and Schlemko’s former bench boss from the Medicine Hat Tigers. “You have Willie going on a 10-minute spiel about the whole course of my junior career and how he knew I was going to play in the NHL,” Schlemko says. The implication: Few else did.
Overshadowed in Medicine Hat by future NHLers like Kris Russell, Darren Helm and Derek Dorsett, Schlemko went undrafted and eventually signed with the Coyotes’ organization in July 2007, two months after winning the WHL’s President’s Cup. Since the Coyotes had no ECHL affiliate, and since they didn’t want to return Schlemko to juniors, they assigned him to the Arizona Sundogs in the Central Hockey League, which currently counts Chicago’s Andrew Desjardins and Dallas’ Jordie Benn among its few alumni active in the NHL. “Kind of the road less traveled,” Schlemko says.
Co-owned by Eric Lacroix, son of Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix, the Sundogs won the CHL championship during Schlemko’s lone season there, enjoying sellout crowds and perks atypical of the minors. “We got treated really well,” Schlemko says. “We’d fly everywhere, had really nice team meals out. I remember playing in the playoffs, one of the teams was pissed and complaining to the league, because we were flying back and forth and they were doing some 20-hour bus rides.”
Schlemko found himself on the other side during the 2012–13 lockout. Since Kristen had given birth to their first child—daughter Ava—that September, and since the Sundogs were located less than two hours away, Schlemko bucked the overseas route and returned to his professional roots. He only played 14 games before returning to Phoenix; Coyotes forward Kyle Chipchura appeared in even fewer, with 10. The crowds were sparse, and new ownership had scaled back to more standard travel methods. “More like the real Central League, 25-hour bus trips and your bus is breaking down in the middle of nowhere,” Schlemko says.
In Prescott Valley, however, the prodigal player’s comeback was a big deal. “I think most everyone knew his story and certainly respected where he had come from and gotten to,” says Chris Presson, then the Sundogs’ GM, of Schlemko. “I do believe that. I watched him play hurt, I watched him play sick. I remember one time he didn’t make the morning skate, sick as a dog, said he was going to play and he played well. That’s the motivation that guys at the lower level needed: Here is this individual who’s not any different than me, started in the same place I’m playing.”
Two seasons later, in 2014–15, the upheaval commenced. “It was brutal, honestly,” Schlemko says. On Nov. 14, the Coyotes waived Schlemko and shed his $1,187,500 annual salary, the result of a two-year extension signed after the lockout ended. Dallas claimed Schlemko on Jan. 3, but only dressed him for five games before waiving him again.
“I tried to put it all into perspective, not lose your self-belief,” he says. “I’ve been through this before, going to the Central League, going undrafted. You think you’re an upper-tier player in junior and you see all these kids getting drafted and you think, ‘Well, I’m, better than them. I’ve got to go prove it.’ Same kind of mindset.” After all, what’s a little more adversity for someone who sliced open a tendon in his foot with his own skate blade in Jan. 2012, and broke his ankle blocking a P.K. Subban one-timer the following season?
Salvation came courtesy of Brad Treliving, the former assistant GM in Phoenix—and coincidentally an ex-Central League commissioner—now helming the Flames’ front office. With his lease broken in Dallas, his family located in Medicine Hat, and Calgary nabbing him from waivers, Schlemko faced a crossroads. “It was a make-or-break thing,” he says. “Didn’t think I’d be getting a one-way contract if I didn’t go in there and show what I could do.”
Fortunately, he did. At even strength, the Flames’ shot attempt differential was 12.8 percentage points better with him on the ice, tops among regulars. Skating in all 11 playoff games, Schlemko parlayed that cameo into a one-year, bare-bones, $625,000 contract with New Jersey, signing late on Sept. 10, 2015. Last season, the 67 games he logged set a career-high by 21. When free agency opened, San Jose was waiting.
“I fully expected to be going back to Jersey,” Schlemko says. “They gave me a great opportunity, thought I was a good fit there, but contract negotiations went really slow, not really exactly what I was looking for.”
Conversations with Wilson and Sharks coach Pete DeBoer about his projected role beside Dillon, however, pointed Schlemko toward the dance studio. “Of course my wife wanted to live in California,” he says. “We were still taking to Jersey until the 11th hour, but it was decided this would be the best spot.”
On July 1, David and Kristen were staying at a vacation home in British Columbia with three other couples. Expecting to sign at the starting gun for the first time in his career, Schlemko and a friend scheduled a tee time for 10:30 a.m., and planned ahead to print his contract at the clubhouse.
“So we head out to the golf course early, end up going the wrong way down the highway,” Schlemko says. “We were late for the tee time, late for the contract to get signed. My agent’s calling me, like ‘Where are you, what are you doing right now?’
“We went to the resort, went into the hotel with our clubs. Turns out it was the wrong place. We had to go back across the highway. I was in full panic mode. You know it’s going to get done, but not the way I wanted to start my day. We finally got in there to the clubhouse, we got our tee time moved back, we got in one of the offices there, got it done right away. I think I got a call from Doug sitting in there, as soon as they got it. Can’t believe he called that fast. After that, the stress was gone. It was just excitement.”
Schlemko stayed mostly quiet in a 3–0 win over Washington, skating 16:43 and blocking three shots against the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners. This came three days after the Penguins, who beat the Sharks in six games for the Cup, pasted them at home, 5–0. The quick rebound signaled everything Schlemko likes about his latest stop, on this road less traveled.
“There’s no panic ever,” he says. “When things aren’t going your way on a lot of teams, there’s a lot of wasted energy and getting pissed off and mad. We lost three in a row there, and I thought we were going to have a killer practice after we got thumped by Pittsburgh. Pete’s got a calming effect too. We still talk about what we need to fix in our game, but there’s no energy wasted on bitching and complaining.”
As his teammates pack up and leave for the second stop of their six-game road trip that continues Tuesday against Carolina and finishes later this week in St. Louis and Schlemko’s old home, Arizona, Dillon idles in the hallway at Verizon Center, discussing his new partner. Without hearing the conversation, defenseman Brent Burns ambles over, thinking a reporter was profiling Dillon.
“Are we talking about his body?” Burns says. “I’d love to add a quote in if it’s about his body.”
“Schlem Dog,” Dillon corrects. “What do you got to say about Schlem Dog?”
“Body’s not nearly as tight as Dilly’s,” Burns replies, walking into the locker room before turning back at the door. “But, he can dance.”