With Spot Secure, Schultz Hopes to Be a Force
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Jeff Schultz's transformation from prospect to reliable NHL defenseman accelerated late last season. With the Washington Capitals frantically pursuing a playoff berth, the 22-year-old averaged about 20 minutes per game, often entrusted to shut down the opposing team's best offensive line.
Thanks to that performance, Schultz returned to Washington this month with a spot on the team secure and self-confidence to spare. But as training camp enters its second week, he's faced with the next critical step in his development: using his towering size effectively -- even if dishing out punishing hits and clearing the crease with authority belies his reserved persona.
"I want to be a lot more forceful on guys in the corners and front of the net, knocking them down and eliminating them from the play when the puck is there," said Schultz, who skated 18 minutes 29 seconds and blocked two shots in yesterday's preseason 4-3 win in Boston. "You have to have an on-ice personality and off-ice personality. I have to work on my on-ice personality."
Determined to increase his strength and become more of a physical presence, Schultz started working out about a week after the Capitals' playoff run ended last spring. In addition to filling out some by natural means, the Calgary-native reported to training camp with broader shoulders and having added about eight pounds to his 6 foot 6 frame.
"He definitely looks stronger out there than he did last year," said veteran defenseman Tom Poti, who is expected to be paired with Schultz again this season.
But the added muscle isn't the only reason the coaching staff and his teammates have high hopes for Schultz this season. The knowledge and comfort level that comes from completing a full NHL campaign, they said, also figures to be a major factor.
"He's been in the league now. He knows what's going on. He knows he can play in this league," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He has a lot of confidence. He's probably going to be a little more determined this year in the physical department because of the whole confidence thing. His personality is a quiet, really nice young man. But he's got to leave that at the door when he plays the game."
Poti added: "When you're a younger player, you're worried about rushing guys in the corner and getting beat coming to the net, so you just hold your position and make the sound, smart defensive play instead of going for the big hit. Defense is by far the hardest position to learn at the NHL level. But it gets easier."
Last October, Schultz received a jolt when he was unexpectedly demoted to the minor leagues before playing a game for the Capitals. He was recalled after a humbling nine-day stint in Hershey, Pa., and he never looked back.
By midseason, Schultz was paired with Poti, and on most nights, was matched against the opposition's top line. Schultz finished strong and wound up with a respectable five goals, 18 points and a plus-minus rating of plus-12, the best rating among Capitals' defensemen and fourth on the team behind first line forwards Viktor Kozlov, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
The one statistical category where Schultz wasn't particularly impressive, however, is the same one he's focused on most. With 61 hits, he ranked fifth among the top six defensemen and 11th on the team.
"I just have to tell myself that I can do it," he said. "You wear equipment, so you're not going to get hurt doing it. It's what you've got to do to be successful."
Capitals Notes: Chris Clark, Boyd Gordon, Tomas Fleischmann and Chris Bourque scored for Washington. José Théodore, meantime, yielded two goals on 15 shots in 40 minutes of work, while Brent Johnson earned the win, stopping 15 shots in the third period.