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Despite versatility, Sens' Schubert longs to be on the backline

by Karl Samuelson

If Christoph Schubert had it his way, he'd only be playing defense for the first place Ottawa Senators.
Earning a spot on an NHL roster at any position is impressive, but when you can play forward and defense with equal precision, it puts you among some rare company.

Jim Roberts did it during 15 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues and has five Stanley Cup rings to show for it. Marty McSorley performed at both positions during his 17 year NHL career, winning two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and sharing the NHL’s Plus-Minus Award with co-winner Theoren Fleury in 1991.

Christoph Schubert is the latest to perform the feat, but he would prefer to put the experiment to rest. It’s not that the career defenseman struggled during his 51 games on the Senators’ productive fourth line last season. Far from it. The 25-year old native of Munich, Germany, recorded career highs in goals (eight), assists (17) and points (25). He led the talent-laden Ottawa Senators with a plus-20 rating on the road and had four multi-point games.

“’Schubie’ brings great energy and he can skate and play physical,” says teammate Mike Fisher. “We were able to roll four lines because our coaches had confidence in that fourth line. They played against the other teams’ second and third lines. That allowed other guys on our team to rest and re-charge. It’s great when you have a line that you can throw out anytime and know they’re going to be effective.”

“Depth is one of our strengths,” adds first-line winger Dany Heatley. “We can roll four lines and match them up with anybody. It’s especially critical against another team that has four solid lines. That’s where those guys become so important. We need all four lines to contribute.”

As solid as he was up front for Ottawa last season, Schubert would prefer to be known as a solid defenseman in Canada’s capital city. But are the Senators content with platooning Schubert between forward and defense or would the Sens rather his settle into one position.

“I’m not sure,” says John Paddock, who was promoted to the top coaching job after former coach Bryan Murray became the team’s general manager. “I know that Schubert would like to settle into one position and that position would be defense. But he was a big part in making our fourth line go, especially in the playoffs. We looked back as a (coaching) staff this summer and the fourth line was often the line that made the difference in the hockey games and in the series. We had a better fourth line than Buffalo. We had a better fourth line than Pittsburgh and we had a better fourth line than New Jersey. So, I’m not sure that I prefer him in one place or the other. I just prefer for us to win. Schubert is a unique player and he contributes in a unique way. He is valuable to us.”

“Schubie prefers to play defense, and with his skating and size it will certainly allow him to play there,” Murray said. “It is really a benefit having a guy as flexible as he is. We got into some injury problems a couple of times last year and we threw him back on the blue line and he did a real adequate job. He is much more forceful up front because he can get in on the forecheck, and we didn’t have that style of player in very many cases. Schubie can play the forward position and if he plays himself into the defense position this year, we know that when we throw him up front he will do a good job.”

Good job, indeed. Besides providing the fourth line with real juice last season, Schubert finished 11th among all NHL players at an impressive plus-30 and served only 56 penalty minutes while playing a relentlessly aggressive game.

“It’s nice to hear from other guys that I did a great job, but when you think about it, I never played forward before in my whole life,” Schubert said. “I tried to do my best up there and do what they wanted me to do. If they are satisfied with what I did up there, then I did the right job. But I’ve always preferred to play on defense.”

Schubert is clearly a man on a mission, which is to continue to earn the confidence of his new head coach and cement his role as defenseman with the Senators.

Schubert set career highs in goals (8), assists (17) and  points (25) last season.

“I like John a lot,” says Schubert. “I had him down in Binghamton (AHL) for three years. He is a real experienced coach who knows what he is talking about. He helped me a lot down in ‘Bingo’ with many one-on-one talks. Even up here in Ottawa, he always came up to me and let me know what I did wrong and what I can do better. I have a good relationship with him and I think he is one of the key guys that made me the player I am today.

”I want to play defense,” Schubert said. “That’s the first thing on my mind, to make sure I get that spot on defense. This is my third year in the league. I want to take the experience I’ve gained the last two years playing both positions, use it as a defenseman and make sure that I’m doing a good job back there. That is my mindset.”

A defenseman typically logs more ice time than a fourth line winger, but that’s no concern for Schubert, who takes a serious stand on his conditioning.

“I feel (I’m) in great shape,” Schubert said. “I went home to Germany for two months this summer, hanging out with my family and friends who I didn’t see all year. The break was a little shorter and I was off the ice for three weeks, but as soon as I got back home, I started working out right away. Back in the old days, conditioning was always about weight and muscle. It was about how strong you can be, but times have changed and now you’ve got to be explosive. You’ve got to be in good condition to go back and forth on the ice and battle in the corners to get the puck. My practice this summer consisted of weights only twice per week. I did jumps and sprints twice a week, and once a week I ran hills. It’s a different kind of workout from a few years ago. You’ve got to do a variety of things in your conditioning program to be able to move around effectively on the ice.”

Interestingly, Schubert’s legs are more like those of a soccer player than a hockey player.

“That’s because I played soccer for 16 years,” said Schubert, who grew up idolizing German soccer legends Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Lothar Matthaus. “I started playing soccer when I was three years old. I played soccer every summer and in the wintertime, I played hockey. Different kinds of muscle groups build up when you play soccer. I know I have big, powerful legs, and I’m just happy that I can use them to get me going up and down the ice with good speed.”

The powerful legs that fuel Schubert’s explosive bursts will be a big factor in the Senators’ success this season – whether they’re employed as a defenseman, a forward or both.

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