“Well, they could have been better,” Rutherford said of Schultz and his defense partner Jack Johnson. “I know everyone picks Jack and has been for a long time, but I think Justin Schultz had a lot more to give in this pairing.”
Schultz’s addition to the blue line has paid off for a team that struggled defensively at times over the past season. He cemented his place in the second pairing alongside Dmitry Orlov and helped level the group with just 22 games left in the regular season. It was also a welcome reset opportunity.
“I think there was a bit of extra motivation when a team really doesn’t want you anymore,” said Schultz. “You know, it gives you a certain amount of motivation to work hard and prove yourself again.”
“Obviously things didn’t go the way we wanted in the playoffs in the bubble,” said Schultz. “I didn’t do my best and it’s a business and I understand that now. I’ve been in the league for a while. It is what it is and [I’m] I’m grateful that I got a chance here in Washington and I hope we can have a good run this year. “
Schultz got off to a quick start in the district, a stretch he described as one of the best hockey players of his career.
He then missed four games after getting a puck in the face in late January. He was required to wear full bladder protection for a month, which can often obstruct a player’s vision after returning to training. He hasn’t fully reached his starting form for the season but said he was close.
“As a person, he’s right in my alley,” said John Carlson. “He’s laid back, loves sports – we talk about sports a lot – watch it all on TV, shoot the breeze, he was great for us too. He’s had an incredible year. I think he plays as well as I’ve never seen him. “
Capitals assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who works primarily with the defenders, recalls Schultz’s version from the 2017 Stanley Cup final when McCarthy and Capital’s coach Peter Laviolette were in Nashville.
At the time, McCarthy mostly took note of Schultz’s attacking prowess, but has now seen the strong defensive side of his game after being consistently around him.
“He sees the ice well, he’s a smart player,” said McCarthy. “He defends well. He has a really good racket and you can appreciate his all round play. He’s a very strong 200-foot player. In this part you look at the offense and forget that from a defensive standpoint you have no problem playing it against a line that is out there. That gives you the confidence to get him out of there in any situation. “
McCarthy said Schultz was bringing more balance to the right to complement Carlson. Having two strong offensive defenders in the top 4 – which the capitals have lacked in the recent past – can create a dilemma for opponents when contemplating matchups on the ice.
“It’s a subtle insult,” said Nick Jensen. “It’s not always very conspicuous, but he’s very actively involved. It’s not always right on your face, but he always finds ways to create insults, whether it’s running up the ice and moving it forward and joining as a second wave. “
Washington, which faces Rangers on Tuesday, is looking to give the Orlov and Schultz pairing many offensive zone starts to capitalize on Schultz’s skills. You then have the option to start in this zone, keep the pucks alive, and advance the offense. Since neither of the two plays on penalties like the other four defenders – Carlson, Jensen, Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara – the power play and the additional offensive zone help to level out the ice age.
Schultz and Orlov also benefited from a longer time together. The blue line did not suffer any injuries after Schultz’s puck in the face. It has allowed the capitals to attract the same three defensive pairings – Dillon-Carlson, Orlov-Schultz and Chara-Jensen – for multiple games.
“We really got into a groove and a chemistry with partners and there is something to be said about that,” said McCarthy. “When you have the same couples together, you start to form the bond you need, you know?”