If you watch a Minnesota Wild
game and someone asks you how Nick Schultz
played, there's a good chance you're going to say you didn't notice him out there.
It's an old rule of hockey that if you didn't notice a defenseman, he had a good game.
Schultz is like that -- a big, solid, prairie boy who doesn't say much and doesn't make highlight-reel goals or hits. He just plays solid positional hockey for the Minnesota Wild
and plays a defensive defenseman's role, generally alongside offensive threat Kim Johnsson
"Nick's in the right spot all the time, just steady back there," Johnsson said. "He's solid with the puck, he zig-zags well, he makes the right play, the first pass. That's the key in today's game. You have to have a good first pass and you have to be in the right spot all the time.
"It's been good. I think we complement each other pretty well. The style we play, he's always in the right spot. Nick is a calm presence out there. I think we back each other up pretty well."
Schultz was the Wild's second-round pick in the 2001 Entry Draft and moved straight onto the roster that fall, playing 52 games in his rookie season and contributing 4 goals and 6 assists. Now in his seventh season, he has 21 goals and 66 assists in 524 NHL games. He also has a career plus-29 rating and a very reasonable 211 penalty minutes.
He rarely makes his team shorthanded and takes about four shots every five games. So what's to like?
The Wild traditionally rotate captains monthly, and Schultz played that role twice last season, in January and February. That's an honor from management. His teammates honored him by making him their representative to the NHL Players' Association. He's seen as a role model to the younger players even though he's only 26 himself.
Johnsson was asked if that isn't a little unusual.
"Exactly, but that's just the type he is," Johnsson said. "He's a great guy. He's a great role model for the younger guys. He's been with this team for a while and he's going to be with us for a long time. He's going to be great for this team."
Schultz was asked if it puts additional pressure on him to be seen as a mid-career veteran at such a young age.
"Everyone plays to different ages, but I guess I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity as a defenseman to come here at a young age on an expansion team," Schultz said. "To join a second-year team probably helped with starting so young."
Schultz obviously was high on the NHL's radar before he was drafted, and he played on two Canadian World Junior teams. But he says he really has developed under the Wild coaching.
"They really stress position and where you are on the ice and try to save your energy in your own zone," Schultz said. "They taught me to always be in a good spot and have a good stick -- picking off passes and things like that. You look at the best defensemen and it looks pretty effortless for those guys positionally. They always seem to be in the right place at the right time. I think you can play a lot more minutes that way."
The Wild had high hopes for a strong Stanley Cup Playoff run last season, but Schultz required an appendectomy on the eve of the playoffs and the Wild fell in six games in the first round to Colorado. Realizing his value, the Wild signed Schultz to a six-year contract last February.
Schultz grew up on a farm in the small town of Strasbourg, Sask., so he's farm-strong and quiet, and he wouldn't trade his upbringing with anyone.
"Everyone plays to different ages, but I guess I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity as a defenseman to come here at a young age on an expansion team. To join a second-year team probably helped with starting so young."
-- Nick Schultz
"Growing up in a small community, you get the chance to play at a young age and around your older brothers and lay around in the weeds as a quiet kid," Schultz said. "Yes, it's my personality. I just kind of concentrate on going out, doing my job and helping the team win games that way. It's something that's usually not in the papers, but every day you still take pride in what you do and helping your team win games."
Schultz must get his political side -- the player-representative job -- from his mom, Carol, the mayor of Strasbourg.
"If you meet her, she's pretty loud. My oldest brother, Terrence, gets her qualities, so he's kind of the loudmouth in the family," Schultz said with a laugh. "But she's big in the community. It's a small community, 100 people, so she's the mayor there now. She's pretty heavily into the community, all the committees. She's a big part of the town there, making sure things are run properly."
Schultz said he is happier than he's ever been, following the birth of his son, Jake, 17 months ago. His wife, Jessica, is pregnant again, so there's more excitement in the Schultz home again.
"This is a great place to play," Schultz said. "A lot of players don't get the opportunity to stay with one team for the majority of their career and I'm guaranteed that for the most part for a while. It's nice to be in a hockey community and somewhere where they really support the team. Midwest people are pretty similar to the people where I come from in Canada. It feels a lot like home. It is home now. It's been seven years now, so it's a good place to have a young family. It's enjoyable to be part of this organization and be in such a great city."