Saturday, September 11, 2010

2010-2011 Previews: Defensemen -- Jeff Schultz

Jeff Schultz

Theme: "Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition."

-- Abraham Lincoln

Plus-50. Alex Ovechkin didn’t do it, Nicklas Backstrom didn’t do it, Mike Green didn’t so it. Nicklas Lidstrom? No. Chris Pronger? Nope. Duncan Keith? Nuh-uh.

Say what you will against the maligned statistic, but plus-minus is an indicator that more good things than bad things happened when a player is in “plus” territory. And Jeff Schultz had a better ratio of good things happening to bad things than any player in the league last year. And while one might look at his record against Southeast Division opponents (2-7-9, plus-23 in 21 games) and say the numbers were padded, consider that in 26 games against Eastern Conference teams that would make the playoffs, Schultz was 1-8-9, plus-25.

One might argue it was the team; one might argue it was his playing partner (usually Mike Green), but among defensemen palying at least 50 games Schultz had the best differential of goals scored on ice-to-goals scored off ice per 60 minutes (numbers from in all the NHL. And it was not close. Schultz’ differential of plus-2.62 was more than a half a goal better than Green, who was second in the league – more than 25 percent better. He had the sixth lowest goals scored/on ice per 60 minutes in the league.

Although Schultz could not claim to have faced the highest quality of competition in putting up those numbers – he was tied for 61st among 176 defensemen playing at least 50 games – the defenseman he happened to be tied with was Drew Doughty, and Schultz’ goals against/on per 60 minutes was almost a third of a goal better.

He was consistent as well – only 11 games in minus territory and only once as bad as a minus-2. 15 times he was at least plus-2 and had two plus-5 games. He almost doubled his offensive output from the previous season (23 points from 12 in 2008-2009) and dressed for the highest number of game in his brief career (73).

That’s the good news. Last season, he lasted for an entire round of post season play (after dressing for a total of three games the previous two post seasons), dressing in all seven games of the Montreal series. But despite averaging almost 20 minutes a game, he managed a single assist and was minus-1 for the series. What is worse, he was on the ice for half of the 20 goals Montreal scored in the series (six at even strength, four while shorthanded).

Last season the 11 defensemen who dressed for the Caps break down into three groups as far as hits are concerned – Shaone Morrisonn, John Erskine, and Milan Jurcina are the heaviest hitting group (all with at least six hits per 60 minutes played); Tyler Sloan, John Carlson, Mike Green, and Brian Pothier in the middle group (four to six hits per 60 minutes); and Tom Poti, Joe Corvo, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz in the lightest hitting group. The oddest part about this, though, isn’t that Schultz is in the third group, but that he had almost four times as many hits-per-60 minutes as Tom Poti (2.62 – 0.76). This isn’t a statement on Poti’s ability as a defenseman, but more one that Schultz’ perceived reluctance to hit opponents might be a bit overdone by Caps Nation.

Schultz made up for this alleged shortcoming in other ways. He did finish fourth on the club in blocked shots-per-60 minutes (and the most among Caps defensemen playing more than 50 games). He also had the second lowest total of giveaways-per-60 minutes among those defensemen playing more than 50 games.

Fearless: It’s one thing for a player to be on the plus side in wins – Schultz was plus-48 in 49 wins. But he was a plus-2 in the 24 losses he played in. None of the Young Guns can say that for the Caps, and only one other defenseman could make that claim (Milan Jurcina, plus-1 in eight losses).

Cheerless: As long as you’re on the plus/minus kick, cuz, Schultz had the worst number (minus-3) of all Caps defensemen in the playoffs playing in Verizon Center. He had the worst number of any Caps skater in the playoffs at home. Only eight of 115 defensemen in the playoffs had a worse plus/minus at home than Schultz.  In the regular season he ranked 119th in hits, 45th in blocked shots, and 145th in takeaways among defensemen. He’s not quite an all-star, yet, cuz.

In the end…

Schultz is probably best suited to be a second-pair defenseman, but given the state of the Caps and how their defense is put together at the moment, he seems likely to be paired with Mike Green once more on the top twosome. Just as the Caps are not likely to hit the 121-point mark again, it is a stretch to think Schultz will replicate his plus-50 from last year. That is not to say he won’t be better. Schultz is still only 24 and has fewer than 250 games of experience. One could make the case that he has improved, perhaps not year-to-year, but certainly he has come a long way from his rookie year in 2006-2007. It is reasonable to expect he take another step forward this year.

That next step he clearly has to take is not to disappear in the playoffs. He has only ten playoff games under his belt, and none of them could be considered memorable, at least not in a good way. One assist and a minus-4 in those games isn’t going to go far in building his reputation as a reliable post-season defenseman, but then again, there are only those ten playoff games of experience, part of a problem that this defense has as a whole.

Schultz is likely to once more be solid, dependable, and not especially flashy. Twenty minutes or so a night, an even or plus player on a nightly basis, probably on ice for an even strength goal every other game (approximately his average last season). It is the kind of play that doesn’t make any one game memorable (unless you are scoring goals from 175 feet), but over an 82-game schedule it will make for a solid season. On a team with enough flash, thank you very much, that steadiness is just fine.

Schultz does not inspire moderate opinions about his play. He is either a player who uses his position and reach effectively, or he is a player who fails to take advantage of his size to play a more punishing game. Odd that a player who seems more effective the less he is noticed inspires such divergent opinions on his play. But that seems to be his lot in life as an NHL player. The only thing that will silence the naysayers, at least this season, is the same thing that any of the other Caps might need to squelch the doubters – a Stanley Cup. Tall order, but then again, Schultz is a tall fellow.


74 games, 3-19-22, +27