Theme: “What if this is as good as it gets?”
-- Melvin Udall
In 2009-2010, Jeff Schultz led the NHL with a plus-50, the first defenseman to crack the plus-50 threshold since Chris Pronger did it in 1999-2000. Schultz also established career highs in games played (73), minutes played (1,450), assists (20), points (23), penalty minutes (32), shots on goal (43), hits (66), and fewest goals against on-ice at 5-on-5 (1.61).
Nice year. 2010-2011?...Not so much.
Well, to be more precise, not as much. If you look at his ten-game splits he started and finished relatively well…
…but the middle of his season wasn’t much to write home about, plus he missed nine games (Games 30-38, which accounted for almost all of his fourth ten-game split) with a broken thumb. Given his lackluster performance in his fifth and sixth ten-game splits (immediately after the injury, over which he was a combined 0-3-3, minus-6), perhaps that injury had some lingering effects.
Those lingering effects might have been reflecting in, perhaps surprisingly, his hits totals. Hit are a somewhat arbitrary statistic, dependent on what the eyes of an official scorer sees. But Schultz was credited with a rather substantial (for him) number before his injury (28 in his first three ten-game splits covering 29 games). After that injury, the hit totals dropped significantly (only five in Games 39-50) before picking up late.
Looking at this year versus last, though, Schultz’ basic numbers are almost uniformly worse:
Is that because his defense was worse, or because of other changes? Perhaps a hint at an answer can be found by looking at things another way. For example, that plus-50 Schultz had last year dropped all the way to plus-6 in almost the same number of games played. But here is the thing. In 2010-2011 Schultz’s goals-for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was 2.27, while his goals-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was the same – 2.27, for a plus/minus of “zero.” Compare that to the 2009-2010 season when the GA number was 4.23, and the GA number was 1.61, for a plus/minus of 2.62. Break this down a little more by comparing the GF from year to year with the GA from year to year, and you can see that of the 2.62 change in plus/minus, 1.96 of that is explained away by changes in goals scored (4.23 in 2009-2010 compared to 2.27 in 2010-2011), while 0.66 of the change can be explained by changes on the goals allowed side of the equation (a number which, frankly, is a bit distressing in itself). These are high-level orders of review, and they don’t disentangle Schultz from the performance of his teammates in those situations. However, it can lead one to think that while Schultz might not have measured up in play to his 2009-2010 season, it is not the same thing as saying he played poorly. 2009-2010 was, after all, a career year for him and in terms of that plus/minus number quite remarkable in the context of recent NHL history.
Comparing some other of Schultz’ numbers from year to year suggests that he didn’t necessarily “play” much worse than the 2009-2010 season (or at least as much as the basic numbers might suggest). For example, he had 15 games of plus-2 or better in 2009-2010, 11 such games this past season (a product of less offense?). He was on ice for a total of 54 goals against in 2009-2010, 60 goals this past season. What he did have, though, was a significantly higher number of minus games – 23 this past season compared to 11 in 2009-2010. All in all, Schultz (and this would apply to a Karl Alzner as well) is the sort of player whose numbers, especially those like a plus/minus, depend on what goes on around him much more than himself, since he does not contribute much offense. The Caps were not the offensive team they were a year ago, and the difference in Schultz’ GF/60 at 5-on-5 compared to his GF/60 at 5-on-5 for the two years suggests that this is strongly the case (numbers from behindthenet.ca).
Odd Schultz Fact… Schultz had two four-game minus streaks, neither of which coincided with the Caps’ eight-game losing streak in December (Games 19-22 in November and Games 43-46 in January). He was minus-13 in those eight games, plus-19 in his other 64 games.
Game to Remember… March 18, 2011. If you are going to score only one goal all season, it’s nice to make it a game-winner. And it’s even nicer to score it on a hall-of-fame to be goaltender. Such was the case in March, when Jeff Schultz pulled a “Mike Green” and stepped into some open space at the edge of the left wing circle, took a pass from Mike Knulble, and one-timed it over the catching glove of Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur. It was the first goal of the night and the only one goalie Michal Neuvirth would need in pitching a 3-0 shutout. Schultz added a couple of hits for good measure.
Game to Forget… January 12, 2011. Schultz was on the ice for all three goals against as the Caps fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 3-0 loss. On the first goal he skated himself out of the play by following a rushing Nate Thompson to the boards, then neither putting a body on him nor using his stick to separate him the puck from his possession. Thompson fed the puck in front, where Tom Poti was the only defenseman in a position to defend; it did not end well. On the second goal he was caught in no-man’s land above the circle, not quite defending Steve Downie, and Tampa Bay ended up scoring another goal from in-close. On the last one, he tried to flick the puck away from a breaking Simon Gagne, but it was a less than confident effort, and Gagne scored on a breakaway. He earned his minus-3.
Post Season… Like so many other Caps, you could argue Schultz had two different playoffs – the one against the Rangers (plus-five in five games) and the one against Tampa Bay (minus-4 in four games. But there is this. Over the nine games the Caps played, Schultz had by far the best GA/ON per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of all Caps defensemen (1.14) and the best by far plus/minus on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 for the playoffs (1.14). He and Scott Hannan were the only two Caps defensemen who had better GA/ON numbers than GA/OFF. In Schultz’ case, the difference was 1.56 goals/60 minutes. But he was on the ice for six goals in the Tampa Bay series, two of them on Lighting power plays, and half of them came in a 3-2 loss in Game 2 that put the Caps squarely behind the eight ball in a series they would lose in a sweep.
In the end, folks will always find shortcomings in Schultz’s play. Such is the price for a defenseman with Chris Pronger’s size (6’6”, 230), but with Nick Schultz’ game (6’1”, 200). We don’t think one could argue that Jeff Schultz had the year he had in 2009-2010; not close. The 2009-2010 season was a career year for him, perhaps not to be repeated. If anything, his year looked more like the previous season, 2008-2009, in which he was 1-11-12, plus-13 in 64 games, but that means a step or three back. Maybe the 2009-2010 season was as good as it gets for Schultz, which by no means makes his 2010-2011 season a bad one. Trouble is, neither was it an especially good one.