It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Jeremy Swayman.
He’s back in his native Alaska earlier than expected after the remainder of his collegiate hockey season was cancelled and his classes at the University of Maine were moved online.
But over the last week, the 21-year-old, in addition to the abrupt change in Orono, was named to the 10-player shortlist for the Hobey Baker and won Hockey East Player of the Year after leading the nation in saves.
Oh, and Swayman also signed his entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins, who used a fourth-round pick (111th overall) in the 2017 draft to select him. Again, all in the last week.
For Bruins fans, “Swayman” is a name they’ll hear much more of in the coming years.
‘I Don’t Know If He’s Going To Get Scored On’
Swayman’s pure skill in net, unsurprisingly, is at a high level. Over the last few years he’s become a more gifted skater who’s better at limiting rebounds. The numbers help tell the story, as he finished his most recent campaign with a .939 save percentage and three shutouts in 34 games. In three seasons with Maine, all as the top netminder, he never played fewer than 31 games or posted a save percentage below .919.
But what seems to have really grabbed his coaches’ attention over the years is his unwavering confidence and the resulting will to win.
“There have been plenty of times where I’ll say to one of our other coaches, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to get scored on,'” Maine assistant coach Alfie Michaud, a former professional goalie himself, told NESN.com on Monday. “That would be in a practice, and that’s an hour and 10 minute practice.
“Confidence is something that’s really overlooked in our sport sometimes,” Michaud noted. “… His bravado, confidence, cockiness, whatever anybody wants to call it, you need that as a goaltender. Especially to be a No. 1, you’ve got to have that in yourself. He’s got a strong belief in himself and his abilities, and that confidence level is very high.”
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Swayman’s a big kid, which hasn’t stopped him from playing an aggressive brand of goaltending. Under the guidance of Michaud, Swayman’s settled his game down a bit to where he doesn’t get too aggressive for his own good.
That said, his athleticism and competitive instincts are the foundation of his game.
“He’s a really good first-save goalie, and then his athleticism, his compete, he manages to get in the way of the puck those second and third opportunities,” Michaud said. “But he’s really quieted his game down. He’s not reaching, he just lets the play come to him, and that comes from playing a lot of hockey and putting a lot of time in with some video and talking. And that’s all just starting to come, and he’s got confidence in his abilities.”
Swayman, who admitted he doesn’t “like to talk about (himself),” agreed with that assessment.
“I don’t like to talk about myself too much, but I take pride in my athleticism and my competitiveness,” said Swayman, who took a break from his homework to talk to NESN.com. “I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to do my job and to keep the puck out of the net and for the guys in front of me to have confidence in their abilities as well. I take a lot of pride in my skating ability, making sure I’m staying on my feet, tracking pucks and putting rebounds to safe areas.”
Taking The Next Step
Being up for the Hobey Baker is no small feat, but Swayman made clear he’s not hung up on individual awards. He didn’t hear that he made the final 10 through the most exciting of means — a text from a coach and some ensuing Twitter buzz — but he didn’t appear the least bit fazed by that.
In fact, he was quick to direct the credit to his teammates.
“I don’t like to look at awards as much as team success, because again that doesn’t happen without the team in front of me,” Swayman said. “It is really humbling to be part of such a prestigious group, obviously the other nine players on that list are all deserving of that award, so being in that conversation is a really special feeling.”
But how did he get in this position where he’s up for college hockey’s highest individual honor?
For his head coach, the writing was on the wall.
“You would call it a leap, I wouldn’t call it a leap. I would call it the natural order of things,” Maine head coach Red Gendron said. “I think because of his attitude, his work habits, his goalie coach Alfie Michaud, all of the things that he did on a daily basis, he gave himself a chance to perform.”
“He just got on a roll, he was locked in, he was in the moment,” Michaud said. “That’s been a big focus of his is just being in the moment, that day-by-day focus. He got into a rhythm and felt good about himself. … He looked like he wasn’t going to get scored on, and I think he felt that way.”
By no means was Swayman underwhelming as a freshman or sophomore. He’ll readily admit that he made mistakes both at Maine and in juniors, but going through those experiences ultimately put him into a spot where he was thriving.
“A lot of that (success) doesn’t happen without the experiences I had through junior hockey and obviously my freshman and sophomore year,” Swayman said. “I had to make the mistakes I did in order to get to where I am now. And because of that I feel I’m a lot better now than I was three or four years go. So that doesn’t happen without the experiences that I had. Of course goaltending, it takes a little while for goalies to mature, but I want to do it as fast as I can, but also as efficiently as I can to make sure that I’m ready for the next level.
“A lot of the credit goes to my goalie coach, Alfie Michaud,” Swayman said. “He really took me under his wing and he made a great guideline for what it’s like and what it means to be a pro hockey player. Every year we worked on that, making sure that I’m staying in the moment, not making a game bigger than it really is and truly enjoying the sport. … That’s been pretty crucial for me, and I know this year alone I’ve definitely seen big strides made just enjoying the game and really having fun with it. And obviously that came with some success, so I was really happy with that.”
Moving On To The Next Challenge
Swayman signed his entry-level deal with the Bruins a week ago Tuesday. He’ll forgo his senior season at Maine, and will enter the pro ranks later this year.
So, why now?
“It is a tough decision to leave college early — especially UMaine being such a great program to be a part of and we’ve had success there in my years,” Swayman said. “It was definitely a tough decision to make, but I talked to my advisors and my mentors and of course my coaches, and we all agreed I did what I needed to do at UMaine. I got the experience I needed and I have the mindset of a pro now. And I couldn’t be more excited to finally make it official, but again I feel like I’m completely ready to face a pro mentality and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
“I’ve been welcomed with open arms every year (at development camp), by the prospects, the staff and everyone involved. So hats off to them, obviously an incredible organization with a great culture of winning and I couldn’t be more excited to be part of them officially.”
The decision to turn pro just so happens to come at a time when Boston’s netminding situation is somewhat in flux.
Tuukka Rask is 33 and hasn’t ruled out possibly retiring once his contract expires after next season. Jaroslav Halak will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and will be 35 years old by the time next season begins.
Swayman is one of three goaltending prospects for the Bruins, with Dan Vladar and Kyle Keyser the others. Vladar, a pending restricted free agent, is the most NHL ready of the group after a sensational season in Providence. Keyser played in just seven games between the AHL and ECHL, struggling in his injury-shortened first pro season.
Young NHL goalies are not only getting shots to prove themselves, but they’re thriving — look no further than Carter Hart in Philadelphia.
So with a wealth of goaltending prospects, the Vladar-Keyser-Swayman trio, fair or unfair, probably will be looked at as Rask’s de facto heir apparent. Compound that with the natural level of pressure that comes with going from amateur to pro hockey, and that could be a lot for a kid to face.
Swayman feels ready to handle the pressure.
“Well that’s my ultimate dream since I was a kid (was to play in the NHL),” Swayman said. “I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL and I really don’t want to let anything get in the way of that. So that’s just me and my competitive demeanor, but at the same time, I know that if I do my job it’s going to take me where I want to be, which is at the pro level and playing for the Boston Bruins.”
It can be a real challenge to develop goaltending prospects. So even with the success Swayman has had at lower levels, it’s no guarantee that he’s on a fast track to becoming an NHL mainstay.
But in terms of putting the work in and being prepared to make the jump to professional hockey, regardless of the level he begins at, the consensus seems to be that he’s well-positioned to take a crack at being a pro.
“Physically and mentally he’s ready to go,” Gendron said. “I wouldn’t begin to speculate how far his career will take him, but I will tell you he’s ready to be a pro. That’s my opinion.”
“I’m confident in his abilities and what he’s going to do, and I think Boston has a really good prospect,” Michaud said. “I don’t think any of us could ever say it’s a for-sure thing, I can’t foretell the future. But he’s put all the body of work in here that looks like he’s going to get an opportunity at the next level, and then he’s going to have to do it all over again and keep proving to himself day-in and day-out that he’s capable of doing it.”
It’s unclear what the next few months will look like for Swayman.
He’s back home in Alaska, where he’ll continue working out for the foreseeable future. With Maine, like most other schools, shifting to virtual learning for the rest of the semester, he’ll finish up his junior year on the other side of the country.
Due to the NHL’s pause amid coronavirus concern, it’s unclear how something like development camp, which typically takes place in late June/early July will be impacted. But when the time comes, he’ll be ready to return to New England.
Swayman’s grown familiar with the area having traveled across the region over the last three years, so it’s probably safe to assume it won’t take him much time to settle back in. He’s a big fan of hiking and the outdoors, so the abundance of mountains and nature nearby helped make him feel more at home.
“What’s funny is the way I got to Maine, (in) the recruiting process the coaches must’ve heard somewhere that I was a big nature guy and that I love the outdoors,” Swayman said. “Our first conversation had nothing to do with hockey. It was all about how Maine had great trails and good fishing and great mountains, so that was a big factor for me and I knew I was going to love Maine. So, getting the lay of the land up in Maine and the New England area was perfect in my opinion. I definitely feel at home there. Growing up in Alaska, having the space Maine does and now traveling all around playing New Hampshire, Vermont, the Boston colleges, different Boston schools, it was pretty cool. So I’m definitely familiar with the land there and I love it.”
Asked about his favorite trails in New England, Swayman expressed some pleasant surprise with the hiking scene.
“I did Kahtadin with my dad my freshman summer,” Swayman said. “That’s a butt-kicker, I was pretty impressed. I thought Alaska had it all, but Maine definitely packed a punch with Kahtadin.”
Thumbnail photo via Nathan Bouchard for University of Maine