Jeff Schultz readily acknowledges that he had a 2010-11 season he'd mostly like to forget. But he's optimistic that this winter will go much smoother after he spent most of the past three months improving his strength, stamina and speed.
Unable to train for most of last offseason because of mononucleosis, Schultz posted career lows in points (10), assists (9) and saw his plus/minus rating plummet from sublime plus-50 to a rather pedestrian plus-6.
Just as significant, he also saw ice time diminish after the trade-deadline addition of Dennis Wideman. Schultz skated 20 minutes or more six times in the seven games leading up to Feb. 28. In the nine games after the deadline, however, he reached 18 minutes just once, skated as few as 13:33, and was a healthy scratch once. In fact, he cracked 20 minutes only four times after the deadline the rest of the regular season.
“I thought up until I got hurt in December, missing all those games … ” the sixth-year blue liner said before trailing off. “Then the trade deadline happened and things just weren't going my way. I just wasn't up to where I needed to be playing.”
The playoffs were marked by more inconsistency. Schultz was a plus-5 against the Rangers, then, like most of his teammates, struggled against Tampa Bay, posting a minus-4 rating to go along with three minor penalties in four games.
After taking a few weeks off to decompress from the second-round sweep, Schultz got to work at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on June 1, training with strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish and teammate John Carlson.
(Although he's from Calgary, Schultz purchased a home in Northern Virginia after signing a four-year contract in July 2010 and makes Washington his offseason base).
One of the focuses of Schultz's training was increasing his upper body strength.
“I've noticed a big difference,” he said. “I feel a lot stronger [after] lifting more weights.”
What fans might notice, though, is the 6-foot-6, 230-pound penalty-kill specialist figures to get to pucks a little faster and close in on attacking forwards more quickly.
“We did a lot of plyometrics and track work, which I’d never really done before,” he said. “It was a lot of endurance at the start. We started off with doing 800 [meter sprints], then went to 400s, 300s, 200s. I've noticed more quickness and just better conditioning.”
In three days, Schultz will get to show Coach Bruce Boudreau whether he's closer to the player who excelled in 2009-10 than the one who struggled down the stretch last season. And considering how deep the Caps are on the blue line, first impressions will be important.
“I don't know how it's going to work yet,” Boudreau said. “You got to figure that [Karl] Alzner and Carlson are set. You just have to find combinations for the other two” pairings.
Boudreau prefers to have a left-shooting defenseman paired with a right-handed partner. So that means Schultz, a lefty, will either play with Mike Green or Wideman, both of whom are righties.
It also means that when John Erskine returns from shoulder surgery in about a month, Schultz could find himself battling Erskine, another lefty, for ice-time, as you've got to imagine that Roman Hamrlik is locked into the left-side spot on the second pair.
Boudreau hasn't had much of a chance to watch Schultz on the ice since the playoffs. But the coach said he's encouraged by what he's seen of the big D-man around KCI this summer.
“He looks a lot leaner and stronger,” Boudreau said. “I see him in the gym every day. I saw him and John Carlson coming up the stairs quite a bit after doing sprint work. Time will tell how much good it did, but he was tired.”