Rookie defensemen set to take on Hershey

by Mike Vogel,

HERSHEY, Pa. … The skyline of Hershey isn’t much to speak of; its most prominent structures are roller coasters.

This fall, the skyline of Chocolatetown figures to see a couple new additions. The twin towers of Jeff Schultz and Sasha Pokulok should be prominent on the Hershey horizon this October.

The Calder Cup champion Bears had the benefit of an extremely experienced defensive corps during their 2005-06 championship run. Twenty-year-old rookie Mike Green was the lone freshman of a well-seasoned bunch, and Green was the best rookie defenseman some veteran observers had ever seen come through Hershey.

That figures to change drastically in 2006-07.

Schultz and Pokulok, a pair of large-bodied blueliners taken in the first round of recent drafts, could be part of the Bears’ blueline brigade this season, as could Jamie Hunt. Hunt is a 22-year-old backliner signed as a free agent out of Mercyhurst College on Apr. 1. Throw in the darkhorse possibility of Russian teenager Viktor Dovgan, a seventh-round pick from 2005, and the possibility exists that Hershey could have as many as four freshman defensemen next season.

schultz2_200.jpg Schultz was the second of Washington’s three first-round choices (27th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. The 20-year-old rearguard stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 212 pounds. The Calgary native played his junior hockey for the hometown Hitmen of the WHL, and signed a three-year entry level deal with the Caps last summer. Schultz got his first taste of pro hockey this spring when he got into seven playoff games with the Bears.

“The playoffs are a whole new level of hockey up there,” says Schultz. “The intensity and the competition is so much higher than the regular season. It is do or die every game. That put that extra bit of pressure on me to show what I could do out there. I think that I did and it seemed like everybody was pleased.”

After totaling 40 points and posting a team-high plus-20 defensive rating with the Hitmen in 2005-06, Schultz added 10 points in 13 playoff contests. After the Hitmen were eliminated from the postseason, Schultz joined the Bears’ pursuit of the Calder Cup.

When the Hershey backline was decimated with injuries, Schultz stepped in and played well for a period of seven games during the second and third rounds. He scored his first pro goal in his first pro game. He wound up with a goal and four points and was plus-3 in his seven-game indoctrination into the pro game.

“The playoff run really helped me see what it is like at the next level,” says Schultz. “I can use it to my advantage going into camp. I know what to expect and how I need to play, whether I stay up with the Capitals or down here with the Bears.”

With a few games of pro experience and an NHL training camp under his belt, Schultz is well aware of the differences between junior hockey and the pro game.

“The game is so much faster up here,” he states. “You have less time to make decisions out there. The older guys were helping me, talking to me on the bench and out on the ice and telling me to make the smart play and not force anything out there. It helped so much that I came into this camp this week and I use that as a stepping stone to show that I can play at this level and show that I can do more things out there than I normally would.”

Schultz is attending his third summer developmental camp with the Caps this week. His play was a pleasant surprise of last fall’s training camp with Washington, as he nearly cracked the Capitals’ opening night roster. Ultimately, the team’s braintrust determined that Schultz would be better served by spending another year with Calgary, logging lots of minutes in all situations, than by seeing sporadic ice time with the Capitals.

“He thinks the game very well, and he is very sound positionally,” assesses Caps vice president and general manager George McPhee. “He just needs more experience. It wasn’t out of the question to have played him in Washington all last year. The luxury we didn’t have was to be able to send him to Hershey.

“It isn’t very often that a guy with junior eligibility left can play in the NHL the entire year. So to have played him [in Washington] and then after 30 or 40 games send him down, I’m not sure if that’s the right way to develop players. So we gave him another full year to play a lot and we’ll see what he can do for us this year.”

Schultz played well in his final season with the Hitmen and is looking forward to his first full season as a pro.

“I used that as motivation down in junior to have a good season,” he says. “I thought I had a good season there and brought it up to Hershey this year and it’s something I have to continue on with Washington.”

Schultz is being penciled into the Hershey lineup, but McPhee admits the big blueliner could also see some time in Washington in 2006-07.

“That’s my major goal,” says Schultz. “I think it is every player’s dream to play in the NHL. You just have to take it one step at a time, go to training camp willing to work hard and do whatever it takes, and then from there get into the lineup and do whatever I can.”

Besides size, Schultz’s main attributes are his positioning and his smarts in his own zone.

“I went to watch him during the lockout,” says Capitals coach Glen Hanlon, “and I went there with sort of a preconceived notion that I wasn’t going to appreciate him as much as I should. I think at the time it was in early December and he had something like four minutes in penalties. I was thinking I was going to see this soft, non-physical player. And it was the opposite. He was in such control, never got himself in trouble, didn’t make bad passes, didn’t have to take [penalties].

“Now you have to understand, I’m not comparing him to Nick Lidstrom, but if you see Nick Lidstrom in the NHL, he’s always got very few penalty minutes. But he can play the body and he is a very smart player. That was kind of the reference I made, and now we’re pretty excited about him.”

Schultz knows what he needs to do in order to make his NHL dreams come true.

“Getting stronger,” he says, without hesitation when asked what he is working on this summer. “Everybody has been saying that it comes with age. I have been trying to do as much [work with] weights as possible. Then skating and foot speed, getting quicker. Other than that, hopefully my game can help me out, playing at that level.”

pokulok_200.jpgPokulok was the first of Washington’s two first-round choices (14th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. After two seasons of NCAA hockey at Cornell, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound native of Montreal signed an entry level pact with the Caps last week, paving the way for his transition to the pros this fall. Pokulok is also 20; he is exactly three months younger than Schultz.

“I wanted to finish my school year off at Cornell,” he says, when asked why he waited a few months after the conclusion of Cornell’s season to turn pro. “I wanted to decide this summer, talk to my parents and figure out what was best for me. I thought that becoming a professional hockey player was the best option for me.”

During Hershey’s run to the Calder Cup, Pokulok made the trip down from Quebec to Portland to watch the Bears take on the Portland Pirates in the AHL’s Eastern Conference finals.

“I saw what was going on there,” he says of that journey. “It was a good caliber of hockey. I said to myself, ‘If I work hard and get really intense this summer, I’ll be able to play at that level next year.’”

McPhee and the Caps wanted to get Pokulok’s pro career started, and get him acclimated to the longer pro season. Pokulok agreed with that line of thinking.

“Get right in here, get right into the system,” he exuded. “I might as well do it right now, I’m hungrier than ever to play hockey. I just thought it was perfect timing for me.”

This week, Pokulok is attending his first Capitals summer developmental camp, getting accustomed to the Hershey area and getting acquainted with the other young members of the Caps’ organization. In 2003-04, he was a teammate of Andrew Gordon, Washington’s eighth-round pick in the 2004 draft. Pokulok and Gordon both played for the Notre Dame Hounds of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League that season. The two became friends and have kept in touch since. The only other player in camp this week that Pokulok knows even a little is Schultz.

“I skated with Schultz at the World Junior tryout in Vancouver this winter, and that’s about it to tell you the truth,” he says. “I don’t know many guys here.”

The big defenseman is happy with his first small taste of the pros.

“It’s pretty fun,” he admits. “You’re playing hockey all day, so you can’t complain.”

Pokulok totaled three goals and 10 points in 26 games as a freshman at Cornell and racked up four goals and 13 points as a sophomore in 2005-06. Like Schultz, he believes adding quickness to his game is the key to reaching the NHL.

“The way the game is changing, for sure I’ve got to work on my foot speed,” Pokulok says. “I think I’ve got to lose a few pounds to be ready for the season, and just work on my foot quickness and explosiveness.”

Those are the parts of Pokulok’s game that need polishing, but he brings a lot to the table already, too.

“I think I am a good puck mover, a good two-way defenseman,” he assesses. “I like to take care of my own zone first, but I think I have good enough skills to be able to support the offense. I’ve got to work on my foot quickness to be able to catch up with or stay with guys like Alexander Ovechkin.”

When informed that many members of the Bears got a taste of NHL action with the Capitals in 2005-06, Pokulok kept both feet firmly planted on the ground.

“We’ll see what happens,” he says. “I will work as hard as I can and aim as high as possible.”

High enough to make a difference in the Washington skyline at some point in the not too distant future, the Capitals are hoping.