Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Defensemen: Justin Schultz

Justin Schultz

“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.”
-- J. B. Priestley

From time to time, there are players who come along in the NHL who show just enough to be a tease, offering a glimpse of what might be an exceptional career, who have a “breakout” season only to find that they did not have it in them to sustain a high level of performance.  Justin Schultz might be one of those players.

Schultz was taken by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the 2008 draft but never suited up for them, unable to reach a contract agreement with the club and ultimately catching on with the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent in July 2012.  Schultz had a fine rookie season with the Oilers in 2012-2013, dressing for all 48 games of the abbreviated season, posting a scoring line of 8-19-27, and finishing seventh in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year (note: Caps defenseman Brenden Dillion finished tenth in voting for the Calder in that season while with the Dallas Stars).  When he went 11-22-33 in 74 games in his sophomore season, his future looked bright.  He slipped a bit the following year (6-25-31 in 81 games in 2014-2015), and then his production fell significantly to open the 2015-2016 season (3-7-10 in 45 games). 

With the Oilers in selling mode at the trading deadline, they shipped Schultz to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round pick in the 2016 Entry Draft.  Schultz put up modest numbers with the Pens (1-7-8 in 18 games, averaging a bit over 14 minutes a game, , his lowest average as an NHL’er) and did not stand out in the Pens’ Stanley Cup run that season (0-4-4 in 15 games).  But the following season he had what might have been a breakout year at age 26 – 12-39-51, plus-27, in 78 games averaging more than 20 minutes a game.

However, Schultz’ production was halved the next season (4-23-27 in 63 games) and halved again in 2018-2019 (2-13-15 in 29 games, a season in which he lost 53 games to a leg fracture).  Schultz returned from injury to go 3-9-12 in 46 games with the Pens last season, another season in which he lost a chun of games to injury, but he seemed stuck with disappointing production.

It became apparent Schultz was not in the Penguins’ plans going forward, and he was signed by the Caps to a two-year/$8.0 million deal last October.

Odd Schultz Fact… Justin Schultz was taken in the second round of the 2008 Entry Draft (43rd overall), the last of a four-defenseman string of players taken.  That string started with Aaron Ness (40th overall), who was taken by the New York Islanders, but who would play in 18 games for the Caps over three seasons.

Odd Schutz Fact II… Justin Schultz is the only player in University of Wisconsin history to win Defense Player of the Year award in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association twice.

Fearless’ Take…

For his ups and downs, Justin Schultz has put together some respectable numbers on the offensive side f the puck.  Since he entered the league in 2012-2013, he ranks 41st of 186 active defensemen in points per game (0.44), more than defensemen such as Matt Niskanen (0.43), Jacob Trouba (0.43), Tyler Myers (0.37), and Zdeno Chara (0.36; minimum 250 games played).  He is also tied for 24th among that group of active defensemen in power play points (89, with Brent Seabrook) over that span.

Cheerless’ Take…

So, Justin Schultz went 12-39-51 in 78 games in 2016-2017 and won a Stanley Cup.  Then, over his last three seasons with the Penguins, he went 9-45-54 in 138 games and didn’t win anything, except perhaps some grumbling from Penguin fans.  His playoff performance was a little better over that same period on a per-game basis, but it did fall off slightly.  He was 4-9-13 in 21 playoff games in 2016-2017, but he was a combined 2-10-12 in 20 games over the next three postseasons.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 500 career NHL games (he currently has 482)

The Big Question… Can Justin Schultz rediscover his game in new surroundings?

Signing Justin Schultz to a two-year/$8 million contract is not a “low-risk/high-reward” sort of gamble.  He is another of that intermediate group of defensemen in a salary cap range of $3.5 to $4.5 million.  He carries the third-highest cap hit among Washington defensemen, behind John Carlson ($8.0 million) and Dmitry Orlov ($5.1 million).  He is here with an expectation of being a second-pair defenseman who can log some power play minutes (he has averaged more than two minutes of power play ice time per game in each of his eight seasons).  But his performance on a year-to-year basis has been uneven.  He had a good beginning in Edmonton in his first two seasons, tailed off, got a spark once more in his first full season in Pittsburgh, and then tailed off again.  He brings that inconsistency in performance along with some injuries in his baggage, but joining his fourth NHL franchise, perhaps he can find that spark one more time.

In the end…

Justin Schultz is a defenseman with skill, particularly on the offensive side of the puck, but realizing his potential given his skill set has been a challenge from year to year.  He is likely to have a reasonably well-defined role in Washington, getting second pair minutes at even strength and the occasional turn on the power play (depending on whether head coach Peter Laviolette chooses to use Dmitry Orlov as a second-team power play defenseman).  Perhaps a well-defined role will allow Schultz to find the magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.

Projection: 48 games, 3-12-15, even

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

 "Any general statement is like a check drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it.”
-- Ezra Pound

Quietly and methodically, Dmitry Orlov has been climbing the rankings of Washington Capitals defensemen.  If Orlov has his typical season, he could finish on the doorstep of the top-ten defensemen all time in games played, in the top ten in goals and game-winning goals.  He is already in the top ten in assists (tenth), points (tenth), plus-minus (tied for sixth), even strength points (tenth), overtime goals (tied for fifth), hits (second since the league began compiling them in 2005-2006), blocked shots (seventh), and takeaways (third).  A typical season would have him climb a notch or two (or more) in each of these categories).

Orlov has done it with consistency.  His point totals over the last five seasons have clustered between 27 and 33 points, and he accomplished that without missing a game.  The 397 games he appeared in over that period is tied with Keith Yandle among defensemen and one fewer than Brent Burns.

Getting a lot of ice time last season was not a recipe for success as far as Orlov was concerned.  In 24 games in which he skated more than 23 minutes, the Caps were just 11-8-5.  At the other end, the Caps were 8-3-1 in the 12 games in which he skated less than 20 minutes.

Orlov did have a decent year in terms of his personal possession numbers.  His 53.4 percent shot attempts-on ice at 5-on-5 was, in fact, the second best of his career (54.3 percent in 2016-2017) and was his first season over 50 percent since that career best season.

Odd Orlov Fact… Only three players in team history have recorded more seasons having played in 82 games before their 30th birthday than the four recorded by Dmitry Orlov (he will turn 30 in July): Karl Alzner (six), Nicklas Backstrom (six), and John Carlson (five).

Odd Orlov Fact II… Dmitry Orlov is the only native of Novokuznetsk, Russia, to have played in the NHL whose first name is not “Sergei” (Bobrovsky and Zinoviev).

Odd Orlov Fact III... After posting 15 goals in the first 105 games he played against current Metropolitan Division teams, Orlov has no goals in his last 60 games against Metro opponents.

Fearless’ Take…

Dmitry Orlov quietly chews up minutes.  Since he came into the league in 2011-2012, he has more games with 20 or more minutes of ice time for the Caps (288) than all but two defensemen: John Carlson (607) and Matt Niskanen (350).  And, in 2019-2020 he recorded his second-highest average points per game (0.39) of his career, just short of the 0.40 points per game he posted in 2016-2017.

Cheerless’ Take…

Dmitry Orlov’s season mirrored the Caps in having a good start and a weaker finish.  In the 2019 portion of the season, Orlov was 3-16-19, plus-3, in 41 games.  But in the 2020 portion of the regular season he went 1-7-8, plus-2, in 28 games.  And then he was 0-3-3, minus-1, in eight postseason games, extending his streak without a goal in the playoffs to 23 games.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 200 career points (he currently has 180)
  • 11th all-time in games played by a defenseman for the Caps (he needs 55 to pass Ken Klee (570))
  • 10th all-time in goals scored by a defenseman for the Caps (he needs seven to pass Robert Picard (42) and Klee (43)).
  • 9th all-time in points by a defenseman for the Caps (he needs 23 to pass Rod Langway (202)).
  • 6th all-time in plus-minus by a defenseman for the Caps (he needs one to break a tie with Karl Alzner (plus-61))
  • 9th all-time in game-winning goals by a defenseman for the Caps (he needs two to pass Al Iafrate and Larry Murphy (nine apiece))
  • 4th all-time in minutes played by a defenseman for the Caps (he needs 1,217 to pass Brendan Witt (10,768) and Sergei Gonchar (11,478))
  • 5th all-time in blocked shots by a defenseman for the Caps (since the league began compiling them in 2005-2006, he needs 17 to pass Matt Niskanen (579) and Jeff Schultz (592))

The Big Question… Can a Dmitry Orlov-John Carlson pairing make for some magic on the blue line? 

John Carlson already has a body of work that puts him in the top echelon of defensemen for a franchise that has had a lot of very good ones.  Dmitry Orlov is methodically, brick by brick, building a case to be included in that same group, eventually.  What is unknown at the moment is how much a pairing of these accomplished defensemen can perform as an elite pairing.  Orlov was paired, for the most part, with Matt Niskanen in the Caps Stanley Cup season of 2017-2018, and he was a fine complement to Niskanen.  Carlson does not have the same sort of edge with which Niskanen played, and he is a more productive offensive defenseman, but there are similarities in his style that tease at the potential of this pairing to be one of the bright spots in this lineup.  What this pairing will have to avoid, is being absent minded in its own end.  Orlov does seem to have an adaptable game though, one that can allow him to shoulder additional defensive responsibility without diminishing the consistency of his offensive production.

In the end…

The 2009 Entry Draft has proved to be deep in quality NHL defensemen.  It is easy for a player like Dmitry Orlov, taken 55th overall in that draft with a career marked more by consistency than electrifying moments and gaudy numbers, to get lost in the glow of defensemen such as Victor Hedman (taken second overall in that draft), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (sixth), Ryan Ellis (11th), Dmitry Kulikov (14th), and Nick Leddy (16th).  But Orlov ranks 10th among defensemen taken in that draft in games played (516), tenth in goals (37), eighth in assists (143), eighth in points (180), tied for fourth in plus-minus (plus-61), 11th in power play points (21), seventh in game-winning goals (eight), and 11th in ice-time per game (19:53).  There is little reason to believe that Orlov will do anything but make a statement that adds, in his painstakingly consistent fashion, to what has been an impressive body of work to date.

Projection: 56 games, 6-14-20, plus-7