Theme: “Nobody is forgotten when it is convenient to remember him.”
-- Benjamin Disraeli
Over a 129-game stretch, from December 28, 2008, through November 5, 2010, Jeff Schultz played to a plus-71. That included his plus-50 in 73 games in the 2009-2010, the highest plus-minus of any player since Lockout I, and the highest for a defenseman since Chris Pronger was plus-52 in 1999-2000. Since then, however, Schultz is a more pedestrian minus-4 in his last 113 games.
Whatever you think of that plus-minus statistic, Schultz’ change of fortune largely mirrors that of the Capitals. In that 129-game run the Caps were 85-28-16 (a 118-standings point pace). Since then, the Caps are 81-51-19 overall (a 98-point pace), and Schultz has found ice time harder to come by, down from 19:17 a game in his big 2009-2010 season to an average of 15:17 last season.
His underlying statistics since that 2009-2010 season to point to a drop in efficiency in his play. His raw Corsi values at 5-on-5, for example, dropped from 8.52 to -2.62 to -4.94 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). His goals-against on ice per 60 minutes jumped from 1.61 to 2.27 before settling at 2.11. The difference between goals-against scored on ice to goals-against scored off ice per 60 minutes was a sparkling -0.74 in 2009-2010 (minus being the better number here), while in 2010-2011 it was +0.33 and -0.51 in 2011-2012. And if you think that 2011-2012 mark is an improvement over2010-2011 (it is), it also should be tempered by the fact that Schultz has been facing lower quality of competition relative to his teammates, too – second on the club in 2009-2010 (to Tom Poti among defensemen playing the entire season with the Caps and appearing in at least 40 games), third in 2010-2011 (Karl Alzner, John Carlson), and fourth last season (Alzner, Carlson, Dennis Wideman).
There is one area in which Schultz has improved, though. Last season he finished with his highest hits-per-game (0.91) in his six-year career. It was comparable to the values for Karl Alzner (0.90) and Mike Green (0.84). We mention this because some Caps fans seem to place considerable importance on this statistic with respect to Schultz.
Can we get back to semi-serious stuff? If there is one thing that might linger as a reason Schultz will lurk on the edge of a third-pair spot it is that in 29 playoff games he is a minus-10. He has been on ice for 27 goals against is 29 career playoff games (0.93/game). That looks a lot like Mike Green (0.94 in 50 career playoff games), but there are two differences. First, Schultz is a “defensive” defenseman. He doesn't do anything else than to keep the other team from scoring. If he is not doing that, then is there a reason for him to be out there? Second, if looks to me like Green’s numbers are headed in the right direction faster than Schultz. In his first three playoffs Green was on ice for 34 goals in 28 games (1.21/game). In his last two post-seasons that number dropped to 13 in 22 games (0.59). Compare that to Schultz, who was 13 goals on ice in 11 games in his first three playoff seasons (1.18) and 14 in 19 over his last three post-seasons (0.74).
The Big Question… Is Jeff Schultz suited to the sort of game Adam Oates wants to play?
Again, no one has seen Adam Oates coach a game in anger yet, so his philosophy is a big unknown to Caps fans. We hear he will not be as buttoned down as Dale Hunter, but not as Animal House as Bruce Boudreau. Even if he achieves a happy median, it might not look too good for Jeff Schultz. After all, Schultz dressed for only 33 of 60 games under Hunter, and he did not distinguish himself in ten playoff games (no points, minus-7) in place of Dmitry Orlov, who was effectively benched for the post-season.
For Schultz, will a game that could be more up-tempo than what Dale Hunter implemented be compatible with his skills? Well, Schultz was that plus-50 under Bruce Boudreau, so it is not as if he is a slug out there. The answer to the question might be more in whether Schultz can shake off any rust that playing in only 126 of the last 164 regular season games might leave him with or if he can find happiness – or at least stability – with this, his third coach in the space of 11 months.
In the end…
Last season was Schultz’ first as a “minus” player in his six-year career. And while a minus-2 did not have quite the impact of a minus-8 from Dennis Wideman or a team-worst minus-15 from John Carlson, five defensemen playing more than 25 games for the Caps were on the plus side of the ledger. Being a minus player should not be an expected result. And for those who are counting, Schultz has the third most regular season games played for the Capitals since the lockout among defensemen (373), one fewer than Shaone Morrisonn and 25 fewer than Mike Green. Youth is not an excuse for sub-par play, and at age 26 he is too young for regression in his game to seep in and be accepted as part of the normal course of a player’s career.
Morrisonn actually is an apt comparable here. Let us set aside the irony that Morrisonn and the first round draft pick that became Schultz came to Washington in the same trade (along for a second roundr pick for Sergei Gonchar). Morrisonn was almost exclusively a defensive defenseman who might put up 10-15 points, but who was expected to be solid, if not flashy in his own end. He was just that for Washington for his first three-plus seasons in DC, seasons in which he averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time a night and was plus-14 in 237 games. But then his ice time was cut (from 20:16 a game in 2007-2008 to 17:59 in 2008-2009) and slightly more again (17:34) in 2009-2010. He left Washington for Buffalo as a free agent at the end of the 2009-2010 season.
It was a case of some – including Schultz – perhaps passing Morrisonn by. Now we might have Schultz being passed by in ice time by Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Dmitry Orlov. It will be interesting to see if Schultz’ can recover enough of his game, if not to be the near 20-minute-a-game player he was in 2009-2010, to be a player who gets a sweater on a night-in, night-out basis.
Projection: 58 games, 1-5-6, plus-6
photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America