Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jeff Schultz did plenty of extra traveling during his first professional hockey season, shuffling between the Washington Capitals and the Hershey Bears.

When the Bears’ playoff run ended, Schultz packed up his car and embarked on his longest trip of the season — a cross-continent odyssey to his home in Alberta.

“I just wanted to get home as quick as possible. It had been a long time away from family and friends,” Schultz said. “I hopped in my car and did the whole trip in 38 hours over two-and-a-half days.”

Schultz, a first-round pick in the 2004 draft, is hoping for a little more stability this season. The 21-year old defenseman from Calgary is part of a group of players in camp on the Caps’ blue line fighting for a spot on the opening night roster.

He was recalled from Hershey three times between Dec. 2 and Jan. 18 last season but was only an emergency add and was sent back quickly each time. When he returned Jan. 25, the Caps’ defense was decimated by injuries and Schultz had his first real chance.

“Schultzie was a tremendous surprise,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “I didn’t really notice him until probably half a dozen games in, and I think me not noticing him is probably his strongest asset. He’s just a steady, smart defenseman out there. He makes a minimal amount of mistakes and plays with a lot of poise.”

A few days turned into a few weeks, and eventually Schultz became a fixture in the lineup during the second half of the season. As coach Glen Hanlon gained more confidence in him, Schultz’s minutes increased. Near the end of the season, he topped 22 minutes four times and logged at least 19 in nine of the last 11 games he suited up for the Caps.

“He’s big and rangy and moves well for a big guy,” Caps defenseman Brian Pothier said. “He keeps it real simple. Every game you could see him getting better and more confident. He was really, really steady for us by the end of the year.”

With two games left in the season, Schultz was sent back to Hershey. That was in part to bolster the Bears for their playoff run and give Schultz some postseason experience.

But it was also because Schultz had played 38 games, and if he dressed for those two with the Caps, he would have accrued one season toward the seven necessary to become an unrestricted free agent.

“I could see that [coming]. It happened to a couple of guys the year before,” Schultz said. “The experience I gained up here really helped down in Hershey. The playoffs are the most fun time of the year, and to get to experience that, you don’t want to turn that down.”

At 6-foot-6, Schultz is very adept and using his long reach to disrupt offensive play, and he positions himself well to block shots. The way he uses his 224-pound frame is the biggest question for Schultz.

“He knows how to play and he was coached well in juniors. He has a good idea of the geometry of the rink,” assistant coach Jay Leach said. “The thing we’ve worked on is he’s got be more physical. He has to make contact, and when he does that he is very, very effective.”

Schultz had no goals and three assists in his 38 games with the Caps last season. While his smart defensive play always will overshadow his offense, he did register a goal during the scrimmage at the team’s first practice yesterday.

Any offense the Caps receive from Schultz is a bonus; it is the physical edge they are looking for.

“A couple of the guys [on the team] try and push me around kind of jokingly, but I’m not afraid to push back,” Schultz said. “It’s just not in my nature to go out there and run around looking to hit guys, but when the opportunity arises, I need to finish that check.”

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