Theme: “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward."
-- Chinese Proverb
Well, you can say that last year was probably a step backward on the NHL journey that is Jeff Schultz’. From a 73-game season in 2009-2010 which he set career highs in games played, assists (20), points (23), penalty minutes (32), minutes (1,450), average ice time (19:52), and a league-leading plus-50; he dropped to 1-9-10, plus-6 in 72 games. If you’re a Caps fan, you’re probably wondering if that whole plus-50 thing was a freakish occurrence or the potential for Schultz.
OK, you can stop laughing now. We get it. Schultz remains something of Caps fans’ personal whipping boy, the source of all disappointment, the cause of all things bad that befall the Caps. But Schultz is also the only Caps defenseman on the current roster who has posted five consecutive “plus” seasons (he has never had a minus season in the NHL). And we get that too – “plus/minus” is a flawed statistic. But when he does something in that category that no Cap has done over five years, it isn’t exactly a liability.
In last season’s results, Schultz faced a level of competition barely different from the level he faced in 2009-2010 (he ranked third among Caps defensemen in both seasons among those playing at least 50 games). What he did not benefit from, though, was strength of teammates. He had the strongest quality of teammates among Caps defensemen in the 2009-2010 season, but had only the third strongest in 2010-2011 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). But even with that, his Corsi value relative to quality or teammates dropped only slightly, but his rank improved from second among Caps defensemen in 2009-2010 to the top spot in 2010-2011. Given that Schultz contributed almost no offense of his own from the blue line in 2010-2011 (last among all Caps defensemen playing in at least 50 games in points/60 minutes), it reflected an understated responsibility in tending to business in his own zone.
Fearless’ Take: Schultz struggled in the first half of the season with consistency. He was 0-5-5, minus-1 in his first 38 games, but uncharacteristically had two instances of four consecutive “minus” games (the Caps were 2-4-2 in those games). But after his second span of four consecutive “minus” games, Schultz finished the last 34 games of his season 1-4-5, plus-7, and only twice had as many as two consecutive games on the minus side of the ledger.
Cheerless’ Take: His performance against teams in the East that made the playoffs might not be what it seems. He was 0-3-3, even, against those teams, but he was 0-1-1, plus three in three games against Pittsburgh. That made him 0-2-2, minus-3 in the other 24 games. And, although he has had occasional injury problems in the post-season, he is only 0-1-1, minus-3 in 19 career playoff games.
The Big Question… Was that plus-50 in 2009-2010 a blessing or a curse?
In the last 20 years in the NHL, only four defensemen have reached the plus-50 mark for a season – Scott Stevens, Chris Pronger, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Jeff Schultz. A hall-of-famer, a hall-of-famer in waiting, a potential hall-of-famer whose career was tragically cut short…and Schultz. He is the only defenseman – the only player since the lockout – to hit plus-50, but even the most ardent Caps fan would have to admit that there is one player who probably does not belong in this group.
But take that season out of the mix for a moment. You would be left with a player who in 246 regular season games would be 7-33-40, plus-36. That would be a player with a 2-11-13, plus-12 pace per 82 games in a shade over 19 minutes a night over a still brief career (Schultz being only 25 years of age). Forget the baggage Schultz carries (no purse jokes, please). Over the last four seasons he has averaged fewer than 2.5 goals/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. If you are looking for a first-pair, shutdown defenseman, you would probably want a better number there (to extend a comparison, Pronger has been below 2.0 in that number twice in the last four years). But if you are looking at a second or third pair defenseman, you might not turn your nose up at that kind of outcome.
In the end…
If the plus-50 year never happened, Schultz might be a nice defenseman to play in a second or third pair role, giving you 18-20 minutes a night. He is not that plus-50 player. But he has been consistent, never finishing a season in minus territory. In an odd way he is reminiscent of former Caps defenseman Joe Reekie, a somewhat ungainly skater to seemed a bit awkward on the ice and who didn’t contribute much at the offensive end. But as Reekie was a suitable partner for the offensive-minded Sergei Gonchar, just as Schultz has been something of a safety blanket for the likes of a more offensive-minded Mike Green. It is worth noting that Reekie compiled 13 straight seasons in plus territory, seven-plus of them with the Caps. And say what you will about the flawed nature of the plus-minus statistic, but if more good things happen when a player is on the ice than bad things, well, we’ll take it.
The 2010-2011 season might be looked at in one way as a step back for Schultz. That would be true if the 2009-2010 season was a fair representation of the kind of defenseman he is. That might not be fair. What he has been in the other seasons of his career is closer to what seems to be his performance level. And the trick for Schultz is to make those incremental steps forward in becoming a more adept defensive defenseman, to contribute a little bit of offense here and there, and to give the Caps solid, consistent, even boring minutes.
Projection: 73-games, 1-7-8, plus-10
(photo: UPI/Archie Carpenter)