From Alzner to Wideman, we're taking a look at and grading (please read the criteria below) the 2011-12 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2012-13. Next up, Jeff Schultz.
#55 / Defenseman / Washington Capitals
Key Stats: Schultz's average ice time per game dropped to a career low 15:18. His previous low was 18:06, recorded in 2006-07.
Interesting Stat: Schultz was -7 in 10 playoff games this year. Across his playoff career, he is -10 in 29 games played. (He is +84 in 373 regular season games played.)
The Good: For a player who was pushed into a depth defenseman role he acquitted himself reasonably well, finishing with a minus-2 rating in 52 games played despite playing with numerous defensemen throughout the season. In fact, among the team's regular blueliners, he was on for fewer five-on-five goals per 60 than John Carlson, Dennis Wideman, Roman Hamrlik and Mike Green, while facing tougher competition than the latter two. He never complained about his reduced role and, unlike some of his teammates, never publicly questioned Hunter’s decision-making or (lack of) communication style. And he persevered through a difficult season to beat out both Dmitry Orlov and John Erskine for the last defenseman slot when the Caps made the playoffs.
(Folks, I tried but that’s all I’ve got!)
The Bad: The 2009-10 season that saw Jeff Schultz lead the NHL in plus-minus, receive accolades from the press and earn a healthy contract extension is long gone. Comparing him by the standards that he set in that career year isn’t necessarily fair, but it’s the reality he faces. And the reality is that Jeff Schultz didn’t have a good 2011-12 season. Where to begin? Schultz continued his regression from a stable stay-at-home defenseman who led the league in plus-minus two seasons ago to a swing defenseman who sometimes got a sweater and sometimes got a press pass. Dale Hunter certainly didn’t trust him as much as Bruce Boudreau did and it showed. Both Hunter and Jim Johnson implored Schultz to play more physical and use his size to his advantage. But little changed. Consequently, he spent a good bit of time riding the pine in the Hunter era and was even passed over for AHL call-up Tomas Kundratek for a few games. And when Schultz was on the ice his minutes dropped from a 19+ ATOI over the past several seasons to 15:18.
The inability for Schultz to prosper in the Hunter system was somewhat surprising, considering that one would think that the slower-paced, more defensive system Hunter employed would have better suited Schultz’s attributes. Theoretically, Schultz would have to cover less ice and get more backcheck support than in the run-n-gun days. But that wasn’t the case – Schultz struggled with Hunter’s man-to-man defensive scheme and was targeted by opposing teams in the playoffs with great success, posting an ugly -7 and causing heart rates to spike when he and defensive partner Dennis Wideman took the ice together.
Lest the dwindling Pro-Schultz crowd believes this is a narrative short on objective facts, well, the stats aren’t going to be a source of light. His old bread-and-butter, +/-, continued its precipitous fall from grace, as he finished -2 this year, down from +6 last year and +50 the year before. His even strength +/-ON/60 has dropped from an astronomical 2.62 in 2009-10 to a below-average -0.24 this season. He got killed in CORSI, despite getting 50% of his starts in the offensive zone, facing below average quality of competition and having a neutral PDO of 1004. His PK time dwindled from 2:26/game in ’10-11 to 1:20 this past season. His shots blocked per 60 declined by 40% from last year. And his 3:1 giveaway-to-takeaway ratio edged out John Carlson’s for worst on the team.
The Vote: Rate Schultz below on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season - if he had the best year you could have imagined him having, give him a 10; if he more or less played as you expected he would, give him a 5 or a 6; if he had the worst year you could have imagined him having, give him a 1.
The Discussion: Is the 2011-12 version of Schultz the true Jeff Schultz, or is there a higher upside? What sort of system best suits Schultz's skill-sets? Does he need to be paired with a consistent partner to maximize his potential? What will it take for him to earn a '10' next season?