When his junior career ended early due to the pandemic, Cole Schwindt got the rare taste of the AHL level as a teenager in 2020-21.

Schwindt joined a handful of other Florida prospects on Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse during that season due to the Checkers opting out of play, appearing in 10 games for the Crunch.

Even with that glimpse, though, taking on his proper rookie campaign was a big step up for the 21-year-old.

“Pro hockey is a totally different animal than playing junior,” said Schwindt. “I got a taste of it last year in Syracuse, but playing a full year here and playing the whole 72-game season, you definitely feel that.”

Schwindt - a third-round pick in 2019 - stepped right onto this Checkers team and made an impact, eventually leading all team rookies in scoring and tying for second on the team overall.

“He’s a really good hockey player that had a really good first year,” said Checkers Head Coach Geordie Kinnear. “He worked.”

After the unique setup to start his pro career, the young forward came into this campaign eager to learn and grow.

“Just being a sponge and coming in with an open mind,” said Schwindt of his approach to this year. “The guys in that locker room have been awesome for me, I owe it all to them. Without them I wouldn’t have done what I did this year. I definitely wouldn’t be playing with the confidence that I had at the end.”

His point total is what jumps off the page, but Schwindt’s first year is made even more impressive when you consider how he was deployed.

With such a deep stable of skill on the team, he saw virtually no time on the power play. He did contribute heavily on the other side of special teams, even converting twice while shorthanded. In the end, Schwindt piled up 17 five-on-five goals - tied for the third most among all AHL rookies.

“I don’t think he had a power-play goal because he wasn’t on there very much,” said Kinnear. “But if you dive deep into it, we had the number two penalty kill in the AHL and Cole Schwindt was over the boards a lot. There’s not many rookies that you can say had that much impact on the penalty kill. It was an impressive year.”

That versatility in his game, plus the ability to produce in different scenarios, is a point of pride for Schwindt.

“I want to be that player that’s relied on when you’re down a goal or if you’re up a goal,” said Schwindt. “It’s one of those things where it’s a good feeling if coach has that trust in you. That’s part of the game that I want to play. I want that to be a part of my identity moving forward.” It’s also a positive look for a young prospect looking to leave an impression with the organization.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs to the year for him but I’m very proud of the work he put in through some tough times,” said Kinnear. “He put himself on the map.”

After powering through his first full pro campaign - one in which he was the only player on the team to suit up for all 72 contests - Schwindt is ready to use this offseason to continue his growth.

“I’m pretty underdeveloped for size, so putting on a little bit of weight, working on that strength side of it,” he said of his main focus. “Every summer everyone is going into it looking for the same thing - you want to get bigger, faster and stronger.”

With that goal in mind, Schwindt is itching to keep that momentum rolling into year number two.

“I think it was a positive season,” said Schwindt. “I’m hungrier than ever. I’m ready to get back here and get going.”