Case Studies in Development Patience: Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, and Jeff Schultz

A quick lesson in hockey prospect development: be patient.

Last May, as Capitals’ players packed up their gear after succumbing to the Penguins in seven games and headed home for the offseason, an awful lot of Caps’ fans rightly wondered what management would do to upgrade a roster that, while 100-pt.-worthy and playoff-perennial, seemed an ingredient or two short of truly elite status. The answer, it turns out, was minimal and modest: wait more on the core.

It became apparent reasonably early in the offseason that the Capitals would not re-up with either Sergei Fedorov or Viktor Kozlov. They were replaced, brilliantly, by Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble. Otherwise, the Caps’ roster remained more or less intact. Management liked its hand and reasoned that with another season of development and experience its largely organic core would mature more and produce better results. The Capitals last weekend secured 50 points faster than any other Caps’ club in team history, and for about the last month they’ve consistently flirted with no.1 in the league overall status. We don’t yet know if the Capitals are necessarily a club built better for the postseason ahead relative to last year, but clearly thus far management appears vindicated in handling the offseason as it did.

Three young players in particular I think have to be ID’d as maturing into larger and improved and thereby team-improving roles in 2009-10: Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischman, and Jeff Schultz. All three are the beneficiaries of management’s patience.

Flash, drafted in 2002 by Detroit, was acquired from the Wings for Robert Lang in 2004 as part of the Capitals’ great pre-lockout purge of high-priced vets. Fleischmann quickly developed into a dominant scoring winger in the American League, flourishing most especially while skating for Bruce Boudreau in Hershey in the Bears’ Calder Cup title of 2005-06. The question then became, could Flash take his modest frame and still be productive in the bigger, faster National League.

It’s taken a while, but the answer today appears to be: absolutely. It’s clear that Bruce Boudreau believes it. During training camp in 2008 the head coach could be overheard in the locker room discussing 30-plus goal seasons ahead for the Czech winger. He believed in Flash then and he does now. Flash has a modest 47 goals in 216 NHL games, but 14 of those have come in his 25 games this season — a figure even more impressive when you consider that Flash had absolutely no training camp after being diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg over the summer. And his development into a productive, bona fide top-six forward hasn’t occurred at the expense of his defense: while he skated as a minus player his first four years in the league, this season he’s on the plus side of the ledger. He very well could score 30 goals for the Capitals this season, perhaps as a plus-10, and you have to think he’ll be given strong consideration for a spot on the Czech Republic Olympic entry in Vancouver.

Eric Fehr’s emergence this season is even more exciting in light of the litany of physical ailments he’s endured, his most recent in particular. He endured surgery on both shoulders this past offseason, unable even to feed himself during a portion of his recovery. But you’d never know it watching him play today.

Fehr Flash & SchultzLike Fleischmann, Fehr wasn’t physically ready for the start of this season, but he’s flourished in the moderate minutes Boudreau has accorded him. He put up 12 goals in 61 games with the Caps last season, and he will certainly better that tally this year. Drafted as the Capitals’ first-round selection in 2003, all the hockey world looked to be his oyster as his produced consecutive 50-plus goal seasons for Brandon in the WHL. He then enjoyed a strong rookie campaign in Hershey in 2005-06: 25 goals and 28 assists in 70 games. Then the injuries set in. A mysterious nerve malady that led to a herniated disc in his lower back. Then his shoulders failed him. Really he was never able to get settled into a development groove with the organization. It’s a testament to his perseverance and the Capitals’ patience that this season he is showcasing the hands and knack around the net that had Capitals’ scouts in western Canada so excited six years ago.

Like Fleischmann, Fehr’s worked hard to gain much-needed strength on his frame. Both wingers are considerably stronger on the puck than they were when first called up by the Caps.

Last but certainly not least in emergence this season is 2004 first round pick Jeff Schultz. He didn’t have a strong training camp by any measure, and in the early going he was a healthy scratch on the Capitals’ blueline. Moreover, were it not for Boudreau’s decision to retain eight defensemen coming out of camp, Sarge may have been marketed, but as injuries have ravaged that unit, Sarge has stepped up and logged important minutes, and Boudreau is confident enough in him of late to have him partnered with Mike Green. Sarge’s +15 is good for 5th best in the NHL.

Too many Caps’ fans I think focus on what Schultz is not: a banger, a deft skater, a points producer. But with experience he’s gained an increased awareness of his responsibilities in his own end, and he is particularly disciplined when it comes to taking penalties (12 PIMs in 29 games). Going forward, Schultz is likely to play an important role as a value-for-minutes guy: likely a no. 6 rearguard on a Cup-contending Caps’ club able to be slotted in to a 4 role if injuries set in. The Capitals are certain to have to pony up big dough in the years ahead for the likes of Mike Green, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson; Schultz will offer the team a value sedan among those spiffy sports cars.

The Capitals’ patience with their own assets not only looks wise in the standings today but particularly when juxtaposed against the relative impatience and annual free agency buffet feeding by the likes of Philadelphia, the Rangers, and Montreal. All three clubs were in the playoffs (briefly) last season. All three are on the outside looking in this morning. Championship clubs are seldom so assembled.

This entry was posted in Brendan Morrison, Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Prospects, Sergei Fedorov, Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Case Studies in Development Patience: Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, and Jeff Schultz

  1. Roy says:

    “Too many Caps’ [sic] fans I think focus on what Schultz is not: a banger, a deft skater, a points producer.”

    Yeah, you guys have always appreciated his game, right?

  2. Eric says:

    As one of the Caps’ fans that focuses on Schultz, let me explain.

    I do not think he is valuable in the playoffs. In the regular season, he is a #6. However, this team is judging their season on a Finals appearance. The mistakes that Schultz does make routinely will prevent this team from achieving its goal. Those mistakes probably do not show up on the stat sheet. The routine clears that he gives away to opposing defensemen at the point. The regularity with which Schultz gets knocked off the puck by players which give up 20-30 pounds and 3-4 inches to him. At the very least, the Caps should be able to count on Schultz to use his 220+ pound frame to shield forecheckers from the puck and clear the zone. These are the plays that do not necessarily translate into individual stats but will translate into wins and losses when it counts in the Spring.

    Maybe I’m focusing on the negatives because of his gaffes in the past. I don’t know. I just don’t see the up side.

    Shop him. Sell high.

  3. flash says:

    If the day ever comes when Shultz is our 6th D-man, I will throw a party because we’d easily have the best team in the NHL.

  4. Wes says:

    I completely agree with Eric on every point, so I won’t repeat them.

    I’ll just say that I am consistently amazed at the love affair that GMGM and other homers have with this guy. He’s a tall stick figure with AHL skills. He’s basically a Zdeno Chara without muscle, toughness, offensive skills, and hockey sense.

    If the Caps wouldn’t have wasted a first round pick on Schultz (picked before Mike Green, mind you) then I have to wonder if he’d still be playing with the big boys.

  5. Eric,

    I see fewer of those gaffes from Sarge this season, and I also see him winning more battles along the boards down low. His angles are better there, for instance. You cannot deny that his stickspan, now applied to some level of more experienced play in the back end, does appear to be limiting attack duration by opponents to some degree.

    Will he continue to make some gaffes? Sure, as does Greener. But Sarge will struggle some with the puck perhaps forever simply because hockey is a game played at the feet, and *really* tall athletes always have and always will struggle with that aspect of it. You don’t see a whole lot a fellas at 6’6 and above playing this sport, partly for this reason.

    If the Caps were somehow able to pry away from a struggling club a real physical dman in January or February, I think it could be interesting to see what might happen if Schultz were used as a third Dman in a low triangle acting as a bit of a condor sweeping aside and deflecting crossing passes with that terrific stickspan, like say late in a third period when the Caps were protecting a one-goal lead.

  6. Wes,

    Schultz had I believe a grand total of 44 games in the American League — about half a season. That’s fewer than Mike Green, Karl Alzner, and soon, John Carlson. In hindsight, should the Caps have left Sarge in the ‘A’ longer? I think so. A “wasted” pick at the end of the first round? I see no reason why he won’t play at least 500 NHL games. What if he plays as a +75 in the aggregate throughout them? A wasted pick? Would that the team could get such returns from Joe Finley.

  7. DMG says:

    People can complain about Schultz’s skating, hitting, or whatever else they want. It’s not going to change the fact that by any metric that actually means anything he’s been a good player, and that’s what matters. Performance trumps style any day.

  8. DMG says:

    “If the Caps wouldn’t have wasted a first round pick on Schultz (picked before Mike Green, mind you) then I have to wonder if he’d still be playing with the big boys.”

    Look at the stats. Look at Ryder’s analysis of the 08-09 season. He’s a productive player; that’s why he’s in the NHL and getting the minutes he does.

  9. Eric says:

    I agree that he makes fewer mistakes. I am just afraid that the mistakes that he still makes will be a serious liability come facial hair growth time. No one is perfect but some of the things I still see him doing are as I think one print reporter put it, pee wee league caliber.

    Ugh, I can’t stand the “Green makes mistakes too” argument. Everyone can look past those mistakes because of Green’s offensive production. Take that away and what do you get, a shorter Jeff Schultz that plays the body a little more. The end.

  10. Now you haters have gone and done it — you’ve succeeded in getting JP to believe I’ve asked Sarge out for New Year’s Eve.

    Come to think of it, a date who’s cheap, average-looking, and puts out shouldn’t be tossed from any address book.

  11. J.P. says:

    Don’t forget the best part, Pucks – no matter how many advances you make, you won’t get hit on your way to the goal.

  12. Well played, Sir, well played indeed. : )

  13. joyfulleigh18 says:

    I’m with Eric. I don’t need Schultz to be a banger, great skater, or scorer. I need him to stop doing dumb things in our zone. Maybe he’s improved, but not enough for me to consider him a great asset to our team.

  14. Victor says:

    It sounds to me like a lot of commenters are still living in last season. As P&B said, Schultz has improved and is making fewer mistakes–IMO, fewer as the season goes on. Sure, he’s gonna let someone get by him ever now and then, but it’s not like he’s Semin. He’s playing good D every shift and his plus/minus reflects that: He’s currently tied for fourth place, with three others, in the NHL at +15 (of those top six he is the only one with fewer than ten points). Schultz isn’t scoring goals or getting a lot of assists. He’s just keeping the other team from scoring and that’s really what his job is.

  15. CapsFan1975 says:

    I’m so glad to see the increased productivity of Flash and Fehr. It has resulted in us having “Top 6” type forwards on the third line and to weather the periods w/o Ovi and Semin.

    Everyone seems to malign Schultz so much. In spite of any mistakes we see him make, he must be doing something right to be a Plus player every year.

    The development of this guys, to go along with Ovi, Semin, Green, and Backstrom is just great. Their coming of age is coming with my elder daughter’s coming of age (as she is within a year of Semin, Ovi, Flash, Fehr, and Green) and is just a year older (and a few days) older than Schultz

  16. Laura says:

    Nicely done, OFB Team! Fehr and Flash were two of my favorites while in Hershey, so it was hard hearing so many fans criticize them. Hershey fans knew they were capable of so much more, and apparently, so did Boudreau. Kudos to he and the higher ups for sticking behind some of these guys.

    As for Schultz.. well, he wasn’t my favorite in Hershey, but neither was Green. It’s really nice to see his improvement from last season. I mean, c’mon.. the video of Schultz being embarrassed by the Rangers’ Dubinsky prior to netting the game winning goal has stuck with many of us when the name “Schultz” comes up. Any improvement would have been a welcome one after that debacle.

    As big of a critic as I have been of Schultz in the past, I’m proud of what he’s done thus far for us. Aside from his +/- ranking up there, he also appears a little more physical. Maybe the log jam of D-Men has lit a tiny fire under Schultz. Nothing like some good ol’ competition! 🙂 At any rate, and like Victor said, Schultz is is doing his job. He’s keeping the other team from scoring, and as a fan, I can’t get mad at that!

  17. Jim says:

    Trade Schultz to Philly. They love lumbering d-men. Send them Theo and Schultz for Kimmo Timonen. They’re desperate enough to make a trade like that.

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