One season ago, Nick Schultz was coming off two bad years in Edmonton that, never mind his strong and steady work over nine campaigns at Minnesota, had reduced his status to that of a depth signee trying to get one more year in the NHL at age 32. Schultz, a leap of faith acquisition by GM Ron Hextall in July 2014, was not in the Flyer lineup on opening night.
Then Braydon Coburn suffered a broken foot that caused him to miss the first month of the season. Eighty reliable Schultz games later, he teams with Mark Streit as a first-pair guy on a defense that has only three holdovers – Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn -- from a unit that, while fast to be maligned for its lack of foot speed, was quick enough to get the Flyers to Game Seven of the first round in 2012-13.
“Lots of guys get pushed out every year,” said Schultz. “You see it a lot in sports; moves to a different scenario and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
“You have to believe in yourself and it helps when the coaching staff believes in you and puts you out in key situations. That goes a long ways but it also helps that I have been in the league awhile. I understand the type of game I have to play.”
As the Flyers look forward to the day when three defensemen they recently have selected in the top 17 of the draft anchor a defense as deep, big and quick as the one that has gotten the Rangers at least as far as the semifinals in three of the last four springs, new Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol doesn’t have to be sold on the value of the game Schultz brings.
“He’s a hard nosed, two-way defenseman,” said Hakstol. “He defends well, he defends hard, he is very dependable.
“He blocks shots and brings a presence and a stability when he is on the ice.”
That’s not a bad package for a guy who apparently couldn’t play any more for the worst team in the league; a cautionary tale against dismissing Sam Gagner, the Flyers only seasoned off-season forward addition. He was dissed on the way out the door by the general manager of Arizona, the third worst team in the league.
Take it from Michael Del Zotto, too: One team’s trash can become another’s treasure. It’s all about trust and fit, Schultz being one of those reliable guys one would think to be form fitting, but apparently not on an Edmonton team that had 67 points.
“I always liked his defensive presence,” says Hextall. “He was a solidifying factor on Minnesota for years.
“He had an off year. We felt his defensive presence was a need of ours. Guys who are air tight like Nick are really hard to find.”
Hextall has signed Schultz to an extension through 2016-17, by which time it can be assumed the transition to Sam Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov will have begun, hopefully, with a team that got back to the playoffs and maybe even won a round or two.
Del Zotto and Evgeny Medvedev had added mobility, plus skill, and Gudas aggression to an upgraded defense. With Monday morning’s waiving of Andrew MacDonald, the Flyers are carrying seven defensemen, so one will sit Thursday night, but status can change quickly. For Game One a year ago, Schultz was just another guy and now he’s the man, one of the morals to that story being you never judge a veteran on his training camp.
“I was talking to [Bob Clarke] this morning about preseason games,” said Hextall Saturday. “It is very important to iron the kinks out, to try to get some chemistry in your lines and pairs, but with veterans you really have to be careful in evaluating them.
“They are NHL players. To evaluate them on the pre season can be dangerous. I don’t know if any [Flyer] had a really bad camp or anybody who had a great, great camp, It’s the young guys who have to beat out somebody. Veterans want to get going when the games mean something.”
Injuries necessitate change, of course but in the meritocracy of professional sports, ultimately players make out the lineup.
“We all know there is competition but we don’t want guys in our lineup that are afraid to play, afraid to make a mistake,” said Hakstol. “We know we have good depth, that’s a strength of our team, and we are going to need all of that as we go through not just the long haul, but the early portion of our season.”
The next man up in 2014-15 was Schultz. Who is it going to be this season?