Defenseman is playing every game these days
For an entire month, Jeff Schultz was like a ghost among his Capitals teammates. He was an active member of the roster, present around the organization's Arlington headquarters and at practice. But the defenseman did not play a single game in the month of January, a routine healthy scratch every night.
It is the hardest role for a hockey player to endure. Schultz wasn't happy about it. But it was obvious after both new coach Dale Hunter and assistant Jim Johnson, a former NHL defenseman, came on board in late November that they needed to see more from Schultz, a reliable member of the team's blueline since 2006.
The 26-year-old finally returned to the lineup Feb. 1, and if he plays as expected in Friday's game against the New Jersey Devils, that will make 14 appearances in 15 games for Schultz. He is paired again with teammate Mike Green, himself just back from sports hernia surgery. And he's playing with a renewed confidence.
"For me it was just going out there and playing and not worrying about what happens," Schultz said. "If a mistake happens, just forget about it and move on. If they don't like something you do and there's a consequence for it, then so be it. But I'm just going out there and playing."
Schultz has earned praise from Hunter for how he handled his absence from the lineup. He donned a sweater in just six of the first 27 games Washington played after Bruce Boudreau was fired. Caps general manager George McPhee also said earlier this week that Schultz is playing as well as he has since a fine 2009-10 season. The coaches, at least, didn't see that in December. Schultz needed to be quicker skating after pucks to give himself time to exit the defensive zone, and he needed better gap control in the neutral zone. Until the coaches saw that he was going to sit and sit some more.
"It holds guys accountable for their play," Green said, speaking more generally about his team's play on the blueline. "You just got to be better. That's it."
Schultz will never be a bruising hitter. It's not part of his personality or his game despite a 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame. That has earned him plenty of vocal critics over the years. But teammates say Schultz doesn't have to change much -- just let that big frame and long reach do the work.
"[Schultz] doesn't have to be mean or anything. But if he gets a little bit of an edge, he's going to be a player just like [6-7 Nashville defenseman] Hal Gill. And people love to have that guy on their team," teammate Karl Alzner said. "Everybody would. He's realized that, and he's doing that just a little bit more. Not a ton more. But it's just enough. You see him tossing guys in the corner every now and then."