Last February, the Maine Black Bears were struggling on offense so coaching legend Shawn Walsh moved longtime defenseman Michael Schutte to forward. In short order, he became the team’s top goalscorer.
This February, Maine was scoring goals in bunches, but at the same time giving up too many in its own end. Not to worry. Interim head coach Tim Whitehead moved Schutte back to defense and the team promptly went undefeated in the next nine games.
Next February, no doubt, he’ll be asked to become a goaltender and throw a shutout.
Schutte also has displayed a flair for the dramatic in the NCAA East Regional.
Last year, he scored a goal with 2.7 seconds left in regulation to force overtime in Maine’s opening-round contest against Minnesota. The Black Bears went on to win, and then face eventual national champion Boston College, a game in which Schutte scored the team’s only goal.
In this year’s first-round matchup, Maine found itself struggling against Harvard, a team many had expected the Black Bears to dispatch with ease.
Having played catch-up through much of two periods, they turned to their defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman to give them their first lead of the game. His dropping down from the point to bury a perfect pass from Robert Liscak would have been Schutte’s third game-winner of the season if not for a third-period Harvard power-play goal.
“Michael is a very well-rounded player,” says Whitehead, who took over the reins after Walsh’s death in September. “He can contribute in a lot of different ways. We use him on the power play, on the penalty kill and on five-on-five. He’s obviously a very effective forward and he certainly has provided a big boost for us on the defense this year.
“We moved him back because he had experience and was very composed with the puck. He can take a hit and he can make a play under pressure. Those are his biggest strengths and that really helps you. One of the best qualities of a defenseman is to get it out of your own end safely and he’s pretty good at that.”
Schutte hasn’t minded being a bit of a yo-yo for the Black Bears.
“It’s something I’ve adjusted to,” he says. “I grew up playing D my whole life. I played a little forward when I was young, but Coach Walsh moved me to forward last year because I’ve always been an offensive defenseman.”
The position switch proved to be a stroke of genius. Schutte moved alongside Martin Kariya and became the country’s hottest sniper. In the next 13 games, he buried 11 of his team-leading 15 goals and added seven assists. He finished the season with a team-high seven power-play goals.
Small wonder, especially in light of his surname, that his nickname became “Shooter.”
“I never imagined [that success up front] in a million years, but I was playing with Martin Kariya,” he says. “I’m sure he set me up on almost every single goal. And Matthias Trattnig was just a bull last year. I never really imagined it, but it worked out that way and it was fun.”
Fun, however, begins with winning. Midway through this season, Maine was a very-good-but-not-great team. The Black Bears were scoring plenty, but four freshman defensemen did not seem like a recipe for postseason success. As a result, the longtime defenseman lobbied Whitehead for a return to his natural position.
“My preference is really defense,” he says. “It was great last year when the goals were going in, but I like playing defense and getting the puck to the forwards. I thought that my experience back there could help out this year because of the youth of our defense.
“A month before the Providence series [in mid-February], I went to Coach and said, ‘Hey, can you please move me back to D?’
“I was bugging him that whole month and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll try you out in practice at D. If things look good, we’ll move you back.’
“I practiced D one week, but still ended up playing forward that series. I practiced D again the next week and wound up being on D.”
The switch paid immediate dividends as the Black Bears went undefeated through nine games until losing to top-ranked New Hampshire in the Hockey East title tilt. Schutte solidified the blue line while continuing to provide offensive punch from the position.
He also remained at forward on the power play, typically working with Kariya and Niko Dimitrakos.
“He has great poise in traffic,” says Whitehead. “He can have a guy hanging all over him and he’ll still have the strength and poise to make a play.
“That’s a rare skill, to have the strength and the poise combined to make plays in tight situations. He certainly has those things. He’s very valuable on the power play.”
When an ailing Colin Shields — who leads the team with 28 goals — had to be replaced for this regional first-round contest, Whitehead declined to plug Schutte in up front. He was just too valuable on the blue line.
“Michael was playing really well back there,” says Whitehead. “With Harvard’s skill and strength at forward, he was a very important player for us.”
The decision paid off. Schutte was on the ice for only a single Harvard goal while scoring the pivotal tally late in the second period.
“Michael made a good read and went at the right time and one-timed it,” says Whitehead. “He has good offensive instincts. It was a nice goal.”
Having excelled both up front and on the blue line, Schutte now just needs some time in goal to complete the positional hat trick.
He laughs at the tongue-in-cheek suggestion.
“I’ll have to make the best of it, I guess.”