Back on the Backline
Having won their first three games of the season, the Capitals used more or less the same lineup in all three victories, with the exception of adjustments made for Alexander Semin’s availability and lack thereof because of an ankle sprain. More injuries resulted in more changes last weekend, and the two losses incurred to the Rangers and Sabres will bring further change for tonight’s tilt with the Islanders.
Most notable among these is the return of 21-year-old defenseman Jeff Schultz from Hershey of the AHL. He will return to his customary spot alongside Brian Pothier. For most of the second half of last season, Schultz and Pothier were an effective defensive duo for Washington. The two were paired together in February when Pothier returned to the lineup after missing 10 games because of a concussion.
Although the Capitals were a dismal 5-15-5 in the season’s final 25 games, Schultz and Pothier perfomed well when paired together. Pothier had two goals and nine ponts and was a minus-2 during that span, while Schultz had two assists and was a plus-2 over the same stretch.
The two were paired together during the preseason, but Schultz was a healthy scratch on opening night, and Pothier found himself playing alongside John Erskine instead. Pothier says the partner switch was easy enough for him.
“I think Johnny and Jeff are very similar players,” he says. “They’re really simple, and they’re up and down players. They’re really responsible and predictable as players, both of them. Johnny plays with a little more jam and gets in the corner a little bit harder. Schultzie is a little bit slower to react, but he’s usually on. He usually makes the right decision. Playing with both of those guys is kind of seamless for me just because they are big bodies, they cover a lot of ice, and they’re really predictable.”
Schultz’s 6-foot-6, 221-pound frame can be imposing, but the youngster is now working on making himself stronger off the ice and more aggressive on it.
“Schultzie’s got all the tools for sure,” says Pothier. “The minor league system, I think it is one of the most valuable things in hockey. With the exception of certain guys [he nods in Alex Ovechkin’s direction], I think everybody needs to play there. It helps you refine your game, and it helps you have an identity as a player and figure out what you need to do to be successful. I think he is in the process of sorting all that out.
“He moves the puck extremely well for a big guy and he gets around the ice really well for a big guy. If he does those things well and adds a physical dimension to it, he is going to be a player.”
The Caps don’t need Schultz to become like Erskine, a rugged physical force who can throw a mean punch when circumstances call for it.
“I think some guys are a little more passive than others,” declares Pothier. “[Schultz] doesn’t have to go and kill guys and rip heads off and start fighting everybody. That’s not what anybody wants out of him, because he wouldn’t be successful doing that anyway. But one thing that he can do and he has started to do and I think he wants to do is just be a little more assertive, be a little more aggressive, get in the corner and throw an elbow in someone’s chest. I’m pretty sure he is going to figure it out real quickly.”
We’ll get a first 2007-08 look at Schultz and the Schultz-Pothier duo tonight.