It is widely documented that the one thing standing in the way of a Capitals’ Stanley Cup is team defense. Afterall, why else would a team averaging 3.61 goals per game, a power play clicking at 24%, arguably the best 1-2 punch in Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, the highest scoring defenseman, and a Jack Adams award winning coach to boot not be the perennial favorite? In some pundits eyes they are the favorite, but many doubters remain. Team defense is always regarded as this team’s achilles heal. I freely and admittedly place myself in that group. It is the Caps weakest link. Has it improved? Yes. Who has been arguably the biggest contributor to the improvement? Jeff Schultz.
I personally wish I could apologize to Jeff Schultz because as far as I was concerned, before the beginning of the 2009-2010, I had completely written Schultz off as nothing more than an insurance policy in case any one of our other top six defenseman pulled a groin (ahem, Tom Poti). I was sure my opinion was justified after seeing endless replays of Brandon Dubinsky undressing the Caps’ blueliner during last year’s epic playoff battle with the Rangers. So bad that Schultz was scratched the rest of the playoffs. Reason given? An injury. Whatever the reason was, I was sure Schultz was going to be on the outside looking in this year. Boy was I wrong!
After signing a 1-year extension in the offseason, Schultz surely knew that this was going to be his last chance to prove to Caps’ management that he was a legit NHL defenseman. Schultz, drafted 27th overall in the 2004 entry draft has been toeing the line between being the Caps sixth and seventh defenseman in his previous three years with the Caps; often a healthy scratch or a Hersey call up. This year we in DC and Caps fans all over are witnessing a complete rejuvenation. Jeff Schultz is looking like a completely different player. How about some stats!
Nobody is expecting Jeff Schultz to dent the twine more than three or four times a year. Afterall, he has never scored more than five goals in an NHL season. What we are expecting from Schultz is the shut-down mentality expected from any defenseman coming in a 6’6″, 230lbs. And that is exactly what we are getting. Entering this season, Jeff Schultz had never registered a +/- rating of more than +13. And that is for an entire season. So far Schultz is a cool +23, good for 2nd in the NHL (Schultz trails only Alex Ovechkin who is +24). So far Schultz has played in 37 or the Caps 44 games this season and has registered a minus +/- rating just five times. This is the type of consistency needed by members of the Caps’ blueline.
Schultz has also been rewarded and given the opportunity to be partnered with Mike Green. Granted this definitely helps Schultz in the +/- department, but more importantly is shows the growing confidence that Bruce Boudreau has in Jeff Schultz. The style of play Mike Green brings to the rink each and every night requires a strong defenseman to play the role of life preserver when Green rushes the puck. Green, now infamous for his puck moving style and skating prowess often find himself deep in the offensive zone. Schultz is often the only man left to defend against any turnovers or quick changes in possession. So far Schultz is excelling in this role. Excelling so much so that since the NHL lockout, Schultz is a robust +53. This is higher than any other Capitals defenseman who has suited up for the red, white, and blue (or black, gold, and blue. Yuck.) since the lockout. Mike Green is a distant second +32. It should also be noted the Schultz leads the team with 62 blocked shots.
So I hereby am apologizing to Jeff Schultz for completely writing him off as an NHL defenseman. I thought for sure his AHL career would be glamorous. Schultz now hands Capitals’ management a tough decision on whether he should be included in their long term plans. If Schultz can keep his play up at the level it currently is, the answer should be a resounding, Yes!
About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.