Wisconsin has produced its share of notable pro forwards since Mike Eaves took over as coach in 2002. Think Rene Bourque, Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan and Jack Skille, among others.
Recently, however, Eaves and his staff have also tutored an impressive batch of offensive defensemen. From Tom Gilbert and Jamie McBain to this year’s duo of Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz, Wisconsin might quickly be earning a new moniker as “Offensive Defenseman U.”
Schultz, who has one goal and eight points in his last five games, might be the best of the bunch. After a 4-1 win over Michigan Tech on Jan. 29, Schultz has 15 goals and a team-high 39 points on the season through 30 games.
If the season continues the way it has gone thus far, he would become the second defenseman to lead the Badgers in scoring in the last three years. McBain was the last to do it with 37 points in 2008-09.
Perhaps even more impressively, Schultz, a second-round selection of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks in 2008, isn’t doing all this scoring with a “stay-at-home” defensive partner like sophomore John Ramage, who played with Smith last season, but instead with another offensively-skilled guy in Gardiner, an assistant captain.
“We just thought, early in the year, let’s try this as an experiment,” Eaves said when asked how the two came to be partnered together. “Sometimes it does work out all right, and in this case, it has worked out for us and we’ve stayed with it all year.”
Under normal circumstances on most teams, Schultz and Gardiner, a first-round pick of the Ducks in 2008, wouldn’t be together, but Eaves’ staff recognized something special in the two young men early on, and they gave the pairing a chance to grow.
“Justin and Jake feed off of each other in terms of how they complement each other,” said Eaves. “They are both very confident with the puck, and they’ve learned to support each other as defensemen need to.”
The two work well together on the ice for Eaves’ staff, and they play just as hard off of it. The duo have become best friends, helping develop the type of friendship that can last a lifetime. Since they are both Ducks property, this friendship could see them playing together for many years to come.
“We live in the same apartment complex,” said Gardiner. “Whether we’re gaming or just hanging out with the boys, he’s one of my best friends on the team.”
Schultz is quick to recognize both his close friend and the rest of his teammates for helping him have the success he is experiencing at this point in his young career.
“I’m playing with a lot of really good players,” said Schultz. “Gardiner really complements my game. I don’t think I’d be where I am right now if he wasn’t playing with me.”
Hailing from West Kelowna, British Columbia, Schultz played his junior hockey for the Westside Warriors of the BCHL from 2007 to 2009. After both seasons, he was named the BHCL Interior Conference’s top defenseman and notched 24 goals and 100 points combined during his career with the Warriors.
Last season, his first with the Badgers, Schultz impressed by quarterbacking the Badgers’ top power-play unit and notching 22 points, second among Badgers defensemen to Brendan Smith. He struggled a bit scoring goals as he had only two until March, but he scored four over last few weeks of the season. He was named to the WCHA’s all-rookie team for his efforts.
Eaves and the rest of the Badgers have been impressed with their budding young star as Schultz continues to develop. This leads to some interesting experiences in practice.
“He does things you don’t teach,” said Eaves. “Our other defensemen actually see something [he does], and say, ‘I’m going to try that tomorrow and see if I can do that.’ With his poise, his confidence, his skating ability, and his ability to see the ice, you’re not sure what he’s going to do next.”
The Ducks could bank some of their future hopes on the offensive skill set Schultz brings to the table. They envision him being a part of a young defensive corps that includes rookie Cam Fowler.
“There’s no question Justin will be a professional defenseman,” said former NHL coach Andy Murray. “He is a tremendous skater, [he has great] offensive instincts, and he’s continuing to get better in his defensive game.”
Schultz and his teammates still have a lot of work in front of them with eight WCHA games left before attempting a second straight run at a national championship. Among those games are a road series with No. 16 Nebraska-Omaha and regular season-ending home series with No. 19 Colorado College.