Ever since John Erskine had his breakout performance last season, a debate has been going on between Capitals bloggers, fans, and media: when the lineup is fully intact among defensemen, does Erskine or Jeff Schultz deserve to get the call on a nightly basis? Under Bruce Boudreau, the answer was almost always Schultz. Boudreau had seen what Schultz could do every night when he played with Mike Green extensively in Hershey, and so when given the choice, he went with Schultz.
Since Dale Hunter took over as head coach almost a month ago, however, Schultz has fallen out of favor spectacularly. In the six games under Hunter in which a defenseman, presumably Schultz or Erskine, could have been scratched, Schultz has sat five times and Erskine once, this past Tuesday against Nashville. In the game that they both dressed for, Schultz saw a third of the ice time that Erskine did (3:55 to 12:56). Which, of course, is silly, because Jeff Schultz is a better defenseman than John Erskine.
Yes. I said it. Jeff Schultz is better than John Erskine.
Consider this: among Capitals defensemen who have played in 13 or more games this year, Schultz is second in 5v5 goals against per 60 minutes at 2.18, according to the website BehindTheNet.ca. That means that at even strength, the team has allowed the second fewest goals against per 60 minutes when Schultz is on the ice, second only to Karl Alzner. In fact, Schultz is in second by a wide margin, with rookie Dmitry Orlov the next closest at 2.31 per 60 minutes. Erskine clocks in at fifth, allowing 2.49 per 60 minutes.
Not only has Schultz been good at keeping goals out, but he’s also been good at keeping the opposition from getting the puck on net in the first place. Again, according to Behind the Net, Schultz is first on the team among defensemen, regardless of how many games played, in 5v5 saves for per 60 minutes at 25. Like above, that means that with Schultz on the ice, the Capitals’ goaltender has had to make the fewest saves per 60 minutes. Coupled together with Schultz’s 2.18 goals against, that’s 27.18 shots against per 60 minutes, the best on the team. Erskine, on the other hand, allows 26.2 saves per 60 minutes while playing at even strength. Combined with his 2.49 goals allowed, that’s 28.69 shots against per 60 minutes, again fifth.
Lastly, and perhaps least importantly because neither Schultz or Erskine is relied on for offense, is the difference between these two players in terms of goals for. Among Washington defensemen who have played in 13 or more games this year, Schultz is fourth in 5v5 goals for per 60 minutes at 2.18, again per Behind the Net. That’s not very good when you consider that John Carlson is the leader at 2.98, but it’s certainly better than Erskine, who is second to last, in front of only Dmitry Orlov, at 1.93. That’s a full quarter of a goal worse than Schultz.
Even if these types of stats are not your cup of tea, Schultz trumps Erskine in most other traditional categories as well, including points, blocks, hits, average ice time, average shorthanded ice time, and plus-minus rating.
To me, this makes it totally inexcusable that Jeff Schultz has been keeping a seat warm next to George McPhee in the press box recently. Even when he was able to get into a game, this past Tuesday against the Predators, he played 6:01. Six minutes of total ice time for the player who, statistically, has allowed the fewest shots and second fewest goals among defensemen on the entire Capitals roster. “I thought he looked okay,” said Dale Hunter after that game. “When you’re not playing for three, four days, you’re gonna look a little rusty, but, he was okay.” Maybe if he played more than six minutes, he might look a little less rusty, Mr. Hunter.
Yes, I understand that Schultz is “slow” and that he “does not hit people.” That’s fine. But Erskine does not exactly rival Phil Kessel’s foot speed, and though he does hit people, and work extremely hard, that’s just not a valid reason to keep someone in the lineup over a proven defenseman like Schultz. I have nothing against Erskine. He is a warrior; he gives it his all every shift, just as Hunter called him recently. But again, that’s not justification for keeping him in the lineup over Schultz every night and even when Erskine is benched, giving Schultz six minutes on the ice.
By almost any metric and almost any way you look at it, Schultz does not belong in the press box. As you know from watching Caps games in which Schultz plays, it’s almost never pretty; in fact it’s usually pretty ugly. But the man gets the job done. When he’s on the ice, the puck usually doesn’t end up in the Capitals’ net.
What more do you want?