Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories profiling some of the likely finalists for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award.
When it comes to the proverbial dangling of the carrot, NHL scouts often cast their lines just above ice level at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center.
Wisconsin has set players up to have success in its system, leading to opportunities to cash in on NHL entry-level contracts. The results have been typical for the Badgers over the last few seasons: See a player have a great season, see him get offered a contract and see him jump ship, leaving another big gap to fill with a younger, inexperienced player who has raw talent.
From former players, including Robbie Earl, Joe Pavelski, Jamie McBain and Kyle Turris, as well as Jake Gardiner, Jordy Murray and Craig Smith last year, a grand total of 14 players have signed a pro contract and left school before completing their eligibility in Mike Eaves’ 10 years as head coach.
It’s a bit of a shock that the number wasn’t higher by one before this season.
— Justin Schultz
After being selected to the WCHA All-Rookie Team as a freshman, and finishing second among Badgers defenders with 22 points, Justin Schultz was developing just as the Anaheim Ducks hoped he would after choosing him 43rd overall in the 2008 NHL entry draft’s second round.
He was the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, a First-Team All-WCHA selection and one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore last season. As his statistics grew, the carrot Anaheim dangled in front of him grew larger and more enticing.
Schultz’s credentials were more impressive than those of some of the players who signed pro contracts before him, but Schultz had one thing the others didn’t: the will to become a better college player in Eaves’ system.
“Right when the season was over, Anaheim gave me a couple weeks to think things over, but I had already made up my mind around Christmas time that I was coming back,” said Schultz, who made the decision on his own. “They hounded me a little bit, but I made it pretty clear to them. They know that I want to play for them in the next couple years, and they trust me.
“I [had] a lot of growing to do, a lot of strength to put on, and I knew another year wouldn’t hurt me.”
It certainly didn’t hurt Wisconsin. The third player in WCHA history to win two WCHA Defensive Player of the Year awards, Schultz, for the second year in a row, is the nation’s top point-producing defenseman, averaging 1.19 points per game in his 37 games this season (16-28–44).
He was the team’s assistant captain, became the first Badgers defenseman to reach 100 career points since Brian Rafalski in 1994–95, the 12th UW defenseman to reach triple digits and the sixth to do so in three seasons or less. His 16 goals made him the first defenseman in UW’s rich history to lead the team in that category, and he did it for a team with nine freshmen on its roster.
“Having [Schultz come] back means a lot because that’s 30 minutes a game, the best defensive player in college hockey last year and it’s pretty rare to see a guy like that come back,” said sophomore and friend Mark Zengerle, who admitted to being somewhat surprised by Schultz’s decision. “He runs the power play and does everything. He’s the MVP of our team.”
When Schultz talks to the Ducks, he hears that he is a more confident player than in his freshman year, and that he’s a much more responsible defender. Schultz concurs that he did improve from year one to year two, especially by getting a year of experience at the college level after playing his freshman year with current pro defensemen Ryan McDongah, Brendan Smith and Cody Goloubef.
When he started to approach year three, Schultz wanted to get a little bit faster, a little bit stronger and a little bit more experienced. He did that by running stadium stairs, pushing through workouts four times a week, lifting weights and doing endurance workouts with the idea that when it’s time for the third period, he was going to be the best conditioned athlete in the country.
“He’s just a tremendous player and a tremendous kid,” Wisconsin assistant coach Bill Butters said. “Justin is a special player. Every team has maybe one of those every two or three years and we’ve had a couple of them the last couple years — Blake Geoffrion, McDonagh and Schultz. Classy kids, good students and great athletes.”
Logging 30-35 minutes of ice time per game, Schultz has produced almost a point per game over his 121-game collegiate career, with 40 goals, 73 assists and 113 points. Of the 14 underclassmen that have left the Badgers under Eaves, 12 have reached the NHL. Butters said “the writing is kind of on the wall” that Schultz will be No. 15 and No. 13, respectively.
It was only a matter of time that Schultz made the jump. If he does declare, how lucky for Wisconsin that he waited an extra year to do so.