DULUTH - Certainly it didn't happen overnight, but sometime in the last six months or so, Brad Schell grew up.
The Gwinnett Gladiators forward is playing with a new-found maturity and it's reflected in his production. Schell leads the ECHL in points with 22 in just nine games.
Drafted by and under contract to the Atlanta Thrashers, Schell has always been a talent. But even his nearly point-per-game average at this time last year pales in comparison to his five goals and 17 assists through nine games in 2006-07.
Schell said he isn't playing any differently this season.
"Maybe shooting the puck a little more, which I knew I had to do," the 6-foot centerman said.
Probably because Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle never fails to mention it - to Schell or any other player. Shooting instead of passing is one of the things Pyle has harped on every season and it hasn't changed this year.
"I think these kids don't understand that at this level, they control pretty much their own destiny," Pyle said. "If they outwork everybody else, with the skill these guys have - I mean, they've been drafted for a reason - so if they apply themselves, it's really up to them what they want out of it."
Playing on a line with Jeff Campbell (last year's ECHL MVP) and Thrashers' rookie prospect Colton Fretter hasn't hurt Schell's numbers either. And he's logged a lot of time on the power play, which is where nearly half his points have come from.
"But that's really not much different than last year," Pyle said. "I think he realizes now this is his last year (on his Thrashers' contract) and he's got to step it up. That's always a motivator. But he's done that.
"The one thing he's got to get now is the commitment to doing it every single night, to prove that he has nothing left in this league. He has a great work ethic, great skill. He needs to push his own button right now. It's self-discipline and self-commitment to get him to that next level."
Off the ice, Schell looks as young as ever. The fact is, he's still hardly old enough to buy beer in this country. Schell turned 22 in August, but the Scott, Saskatchewan, native is in his third season of professional hockey and it shows.
"I feel like a vet," Schell said, smiling and chuckling a little. "I've been here for two years now. I know Jeff and his systems. I try to help out the rookies, who are actually older than me - which is a little weird."
Well-versed in Gwinnett's systems, Schell cruises around the ice with an assurity won over the last two years.
"I think this year, I'm obviously more experienced, but I'm getting the bounces too," Schell said. "Playing with (Campbell and Fretter) helps out.
"We're working hard and creating chances for ourselves; and just hopefully we can keep it up."
Their efforts have helped push Gwinnett to the top of the American Conference standings and a share of the league lead with Idaho at 14 points. The team's success is a factor, too, in Schell's ability to make the jump to the next level, according to Pyle.
"I think he's sharper and more mature," Pyle said. "He's always had a great game. He's always been smart, good with the puck. When he's committed, he's as good as anybody. This next month, I think, will be huge for him.
"If he steps it up and takes control of situations, which with that he needs the help of everybody on his line and everybody in this locker room. We need to do it as a team. It kind of opens those doors. If we're struggling, it's not the same. These guys need to understand that some of the notoriety they're going to get, they wouldn't get in another place."
Schell was signed to a three-year deal by the Thrashers prior to the 2004-05 season. At the end of this season, Atlanta has the option to re-sign Schell. The Thrashers must extend him a qualifying offer to retain his rights, otherwise Schell becomes an unrestricted free agent.
"You know, coming in for the year I tried not to put too much pressure on myself, although I know it is my last year in contract and you've got to play good," Schell said. "There are other teams that are watching if Atlanta doesn't decide to sign me.
"I try not to put too much pressure, but it sits in the back of my mind, yeah."
Thrashers general manager Don Waddell and several of Atlanta's assistant coaches have been out to watch Schell and all of the parent club's other prospects.
Waddell said the improvements in Schell's game come with maturity.
"He's strong and he's got good skill," Waddell said. "In junior he was always the point guy. His success was always measured in points.
"But the higher you go, you've got to play all aspects of the game."
The things he's talked to Schell about are the same things he talks to most of the organization's young talent about.
"They've got to learn to play every game, every shift like it's your last," Waddell said. "He can only control how he plays. He can't worry about the guys in front of him (in the organization). I tell all the guys, there are 29 other teams (in the NHL)."
Schell spent 10 games with the Chicago Wolves - Atlanta and Gwinnett's AHL affiliate - last season. But his ice time was limited and Schell returned to the Gladiators with just three points from his first AHL call-up.
He was in Chicago's training camp before being assigned to Gwinnett again last month.
"It's important, hopefully that I get up (to the AHL) and get up there and play," Schell said. "If I get the call, I just hope I get to play and prove my thing up there.
"(But) I'm fine with where things are at. After I got sent down, I just told myself that I have to have a good start; and things have gone my way."