Theme: “When they boo you, you know they mean you.”
Theme: “When they boo you, you know they mean you.”
George Halas said that in reference to football, but it pretty much applies to any sport or art form. And no one, it seems, is the target of more boos, or at least more ill feeling among Caps fans, than defenseman Jeff Schultz. Frankly, we’re not seeing either the reason or the purpose. First, there is the calendar. If Karl Alzner does not make the opening night roster (or John Carlson), Schultz will start the year as the youngest defenseman on the roster (he will not turn 24 until next February). Then there is performance. Schultz has played two full seasons and about half of another, and he has been either first or second in plus-minus in each. He has, by far, the best cumulative plus-minus among defensemen over the last three seasons (+30 to Mike Green’s +20).
But Schultz is 6’6”, 221 pounds. And big defensemen are supposed to hit – hard and frequently. Well, maybe. Four defensemen of 6’6” stature played in at least half of their team’s games last year – Alexei Semenov, Marek Malik, Chris Pronger, and Schultz. Only one – Semenov – recorded at least one hit per game (1.13 in 47 games). Pronger came in at 0.95 in 82 games, Schultz at 0.83 in 64 games, and Malik at 0.33 in 42 games. It’s not a large sample, but then again, large defensemen heeding Fred Shero’s philosophy of taking the shortest route to the puck carrier and arriving in ill humor is not a universal truth among big defenders, either.
And here is another odd fact about Schultz. Last season, of the 11 defensemen in the NHL standing 6’6” or taller, only Zdeno Chara and Pronger played in more games, hinting at a certain durability in Schultz’ game (of lack of it in others of his stature). In 2007-2008, only two of 11 (Chara and Hal Gill) played in more than the 72 games Schultz played.
We’re not here to sing Schultz’ praises, inasmuch as he’s a young defenseman (174 career regular season games) who has a considerable way to go in his development, as much as we scratch our head over the antipathy shown to him by Caps fans. Is he – or will he ever be – a top-pair defenseman? Probably not. John Carlson and Karl Alzner would appear to have more promise as a partner for Mike Green down the road. But Schultz can – even as his body fills out some more – be a solid second-pair defenseman.
Fearless: OK, let’s play a game…two defensemen, both in their third year in the league:
Defenseman 1: 67 games, 2-8-10, +11, 20 PIMs
Defenseman 2: 64 games, 1-11-12, +13, 21 PIMs
Even Cheerless can figure out that Defenseman 2 is Schultz. But Defenseman 1?... That would be the 1986-1987 line for third year defenseman Sylvain Cote, who ended up playing in almost 1,200 games over 19 seasons. This isn’t to say Schultz will have as long, or even as prolific a career as Cote – a solid player for almost two decades. But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that there is an upside to Schultz that hasn’t manifested itself (and might not for a few years – for example, Cote wouldn’t become a 40-point defenseman until his eighth season, his first with the Caps). And Schultz should not be penalized in the comparison just because he’s Pronger-sized and not Cote-sized.
Cheerless: In two years’ worth of playoffs, the Caps have played in 21 games. Schultz has been around for three of them. He missed most of the Flyers’ series in 2008 with a back injury and almost all of the 2009 playoff season with a rib injury. In the last 23 games of the regular season last year, he was 0-2-2, -5 after starting the year 1-9-10, +18 in his first 41 games. You can’t predict injuries, and incurring them isn’t a player’s fault, but you’d like to see stronger finishes than what he’s had so far.
In the end…
Following on to an observation we made about Karl Alzner, nine defensemen were selected in the first round of the 2004 draft. Of that group, three – Mike Green, Ladislav Smid, and Andrej Meszaros – have played in more games. Two – Andy Rogers and A.J. Thelen (one of the great busts in recent memory) – have yet to play in an NHL game. One might conclude that while Alzner has rocketed to the NHL (OK, we concluded that), Schultz’ development has been entirely reasonable within the context of his class. Of those playing more games so far in their respective careers, Smid (9th) and Mesazros (23rd) were selected above Schultz in the 2004 draft, Green (29th) two picks after Schultz.
Last year, Schultz had an impressive plus-minus, but had the worst Corsi rating among Caps defensemen playing in at least 30 games (5-on-5, according to behindthenet.ca). He also had the third worst mark among Caps defensemen playing in at least 30 games at 5-on-5 goals against/60 minutes. But he played a higher quality of competition than did Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, or John Erskine (all of who had better 5-on-5 goals against/60 minutes (all numbers from behindthenet.ca). The point of all this is that Schultz is very much a work in progress, even if there is a vocal crowd of Caps fans imploring him to hit something… anything.
60 games, 2-11-13, +11