On the eve of NHL trade deadline this past Feb. 28, Don Waddell combed the waiver wire for a player who might be the answer to the Atlanta Thrashers' scoring woes.
Twenty-four hours later, the former Thrashers general manager-turned president claimed a 24-year-old centre from the New York Islanders for about $110,000 US, calling the move "a free look at a very talented young player that's been through a lot."
Waddell remembered Rob Schremp feeling on top of the world in May 2005 after the 18-year-old led the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights to a Memorial Cup championship on home ice. Schremp won the league scoring title the next spring — with 57 goals and 145 points in 57 games — two years after Edmonton Oilers drafted him 25th overall in 2004.
But soon after Schremp's arrival in Atlanta, Waddell realized a key ingredient in Schremp's game, evident in junior and while a member of the U.S. national junior team in 2005 and 2006, was missing.
"I can remember talking to him when he first came in and he was lacking confidence, no doubt," Waddell said over the phone from Atlanta, where he is helping the former Thrashers ownership group — the Spirit — finalize its sale of the NBA Hawks to California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Meruelo.
"But you keep looking back at how much natural talent this player has. He actually came in and right off the bat he played pretty well for us and you hope that kick-starts him."
Waddell, who opted not to accompany the Thrashers to Winnipeg in June, will again have to watch Schremp from afar during the upcoming season.
'You see players who have big years out of nowhere. They just get their confidence back or change a few things.' — Former NHL forward Rob Schremp
After parts of four NHL seasons, the now 25-year-old has decided playing outside of North America is best at this stage of his career. Schremp will attempt to regain his confidence playing for Modo in the Swedish Elite League on a one-year deal signed on Aug. 11 that includes incentive clauses for goals and points. The five-foot-11, 185-pound centre will also have his living arrangements and vehicle covered by the team.
"You have to assess the situation and [Modo] was the best for me," Schremp, who scored three goals and four points in 18 games last season for Atlanta, said in a phone interview. "It doesn't help me get better playing six, seven minutes a game [in the NHL].
"I think being a factor [in Sweden] and getting that back in my game is best. It feels good to be a big part of the team and help win. That's what I want to do, just like the London days.
"My confidence in those days was a lot better," added Schremp, who has 20 goals and 54 points in 114 NHL regular-season games over parts of four campaigns. "You see players who have big years out of nowhere. They just get their confidence back or change a few things. When you play only a few minutes you're worried about making mistakes instead of making the best play."
Schremp, who joins Modo next month, averaged just 11 minutes 32 seconds per game under head coach Craig Ramsay in Atlanta after playing 15:03 earlier in the season on Long Island, where he was made a healthy scratch in his first 25 contests after being claimed off waivers from Edmonton in September 2009.
"The last 44 games [in the '09-'10 season] I had 25 points … and proved I could [be effective]," said Schremp, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after the new management team in Winnipeg didn't make the restricted free agent a qualifying offer. "In the last 15 to 18 games that season I [averaged] a point a game. It was good knowing if given the opportunity I can [have success]."
In an email to CBCSports.ca, Schremp's agent Anton Thun of MFIVE Sports in Toronto said "an athlete's confidence comes with playing time and that is something Rob didn't consistently receive at the NHL level. Rob has tremendous puck skills but is trying to improve in other areas that are seen by NHL clubs as deficient."
The knock on Schremp, well-known for his highlight-reel shootout moves, has been his defensive play (minus-23 in his NHL career) and work in the defensive zone.
"He could be a first-line centre in the NHL if he wants to be — if he becomes a better skater and a bit more complete," one-time Oilers assistant GM Scott Howson — now GM in Columbus — told the Edmonton Sun in 2006. "That's going to take time, though."
For Schremp, once a budding star, the road back to the NHL will begin on the bigger ice surface in the small, hockey-centred town of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, where several NHL talents played in the Modo system, including current Vancouver Canucks star forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Before the twins, Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund emerged out of Modo's junior system, dominating the SEL in 1993 as 19-year-olds. They returned to play for Modo in 2009 and within the past eight months have joined the front office, with Forsberg working as an assistant to GM Naslund. In May, former NHL defenceman Ulf Samuelsson left his coaching job with the Phoenix Coyotes to become head coach with Modo.
Naslund contacted Thun two days after being told by former Thrashers defenceman Freddy Meyer, now with Modo, that Schremp was seeking a change after exhausting his options for a one-way contract in the NHL.
"Rob is a player with qualities that will benefit us a lot. Throughout his career he has shown great potential, potential that we think will be met in a predominant role," Naslund told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet recently, adding Schremp would be among the top five players in the SEL.
"I have a chance to go play at the best level in Sweden," Schremp said. "It's about becoming a better hockey player. It's [a] fast [game] over there, they train hard. I'm really looking forward to that opportunity to play [big] minutes.
"You have to be on the ice a lot to have your confidence and … that swagger to be a top-end player. Skating is going to be a big thing on the bigger ice and quickness is something I could learn."
Waddell likes the move for Schremp, saying many young players have played in Europe and re-established themselves.
"He's got a lot of hockey in front of him," said the former NHL GM. "His skill set is as good as most guys in the game. He just has to be able to put it all back together.
"You come in [to the NHL] at a young age with all this talent and you think it's just going to happen for you. He was young and immature at one time and I think some of the knocks on him were probably fair at the time. He's not that player anymore. He's much more mature now as an individual and I think he understands what it will take to have a successful NHL career."