The combination of Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik – the Washington Capitals’ most experienced veterans – sitting out as healthy scratches and the proximity to Monday’s trade deadline created a perfect storm of speculation. While the deadline may have passed, the storm did not as both Knuble and Hamrlik remained in Washington and found themselves scratched again for Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win over the New York Islanders.
Both Knuble, who has sat out of six of the Caps’ last 10 games, and Hamrlik, who has missed four straight, have expressed their respective displeasure with their recent lack of playing time and when asked about that Tuesday, head coach Dale Hunter used another player as an example.
“It’s like [Jeff Schultz], how he was scratched,” Hunter said. “I don’t even know how many [games] and now what is he doing? He didn’t say anything, he just went out, worked hard in practice and it proves a point. When you do get in and you play well, like [Schultz] has, he deserves to be in the lineup and that’s what bumps out another guy.”
For clarification, Schultz was scratched for the entire month of January – a span of 12 consecutive games – and 18 of 20 from December 9 to January 31. Since he returned to the lineup February 1, Schultz has appeared in 13 of Washington’s last 14 games. Not playing, as evidenced by Knuble and Hamrlik, is rough on any player, but there were positives that Schultz took out of his experience.
“It was all different aspects,” Schultz said Thursday in regards to what he worked on with assistant coach Jim Johnson while he was inactive. “Skating back for pucks quickly and giving yourself enough time and moving it up quick and good gaps and neutral zone, so it was just a good combination of every part of the game. Sometimes, you don’t practice those aspects of the game and it’s always good to have a little refresher and go through some drills that you don’t usually do, work out a few things.”
“It feels like my game’s come back,” Schultz continued. “I’m comfortable out there and I think I’m contributing. It just feels good to be back, hanging with the guys during game time, going through the game-time routine.”
Johnson, who usually leads the extra skates after practices and morning skates, said Thursday that his primary focus when working with Schultz was to work on his footwork, particularly his transition from skating forward to backward to better close the gap between him and his defensive assignment. The other aspect of Schultz’s game that Johnson worked on was his physicality, something that Hunter praised Thursday when asked about any differences he has seen in Schultz’s game since his return.
“He’s been physical,” Hunter said. “He’s been hitting people. He’s been physical when he has to be, which is good for [Schultz].”
Johnson has also noticed a change in Schultz’s aggression, so much so that referees have had to let him know about it.
“[We wanted Schultz to] play with a little more grit and he’s done that now to the point where the official came over and told him to relax on guys,” Johnson said. “He’s just gotta play more aggressive like he is. It’s hard work, but he stayed with it and waited for his opportunity and he’s performed well and now his minutes have increased.”
As opposed to the 26-year-old Schultz, Johnson knows that he cannot teach veterans like Knuble and Hamrlik as much as he can just help to refresh their memories, but Johnson is not treating Knuble and Hamrlik any differently than anybody else.
“What we’re trying to do is keep these guys ready and prepared so when they do get that opportunity that they’re in top physical condition and they can come in and be an impact player for us,” Johnson said. “That’s the most important thing. When you’re out of the lineup, it’s always difficult, so you want to keep their confidence high.”
“It’s not punishment,” Johnson continued. “There’s nothing out there that has anything to do with that. It’s to keep them prepared because we’re going to need everybody coming down the stretch here.”
Schultz may not have the overall experience that Knuble and Hamrlik have, but all three have shared a common experience lately by sitting out of the lineup. Schultz knows what it is like not to play and understands what it takes to get back into the game.
“Just hang in there,” Schultz said when asked what kind of advice he would give Knuble and Hamrlik. “The chance is gonna happen. You never know when it’s gonna happen and you’ve just gotta make the most of it when the chance comes.”