Wisconsin hosted Minnesota in a couple games of puck this weekend, and that affects you as a Ducks fan because well-touted Anaheim prospects make up one-third of the Badgers defensive corps. Jake Gardiner (1st Round 2008, 17th overall) and Justin Schultz (2nd Round 2008, 43rd overall) played well in their team's first major rivalry series this season, but Wisconsin ended up splitting the weekend with the Gophers, winning Friday's game 4-2 and losing Saturday's 5-2.
Gardiner had a goal in the latter contest, and I'll break down the performance of each prospect after the jump. But first, a few notes on this year's team, just to put everything in perspective.
Assistant Coach Mark Osiecki, considered a player development guru in the NCAA, manages and recruits the Badger rearguards. He has three juniors in his 2009-10 squad, and each was teamed with an underclassman, creating the following pairings: .
Ryan McDonagh-Jake Gardiner (So.)
Cody Goloubef-Justin Schultz (Fr.)
Brendan Smith-John Ramage (Fr.)
So far, the jewel of the corps has been Brendan Smith, but don't fret Ducks fans. This Wisconsin team depends on all three pairings to create offense, and Schultz and Gardiner both get plenty of time to do just that.
All right, on to the scouting report...
Jake Gardiner (1st Round - 17th overall - 2008 Entry Draft)
I've talked about Jake Gardiner before, so check that out if you're looking for background on him. I'm just going to update you on his development today.
As I noted in my expanded prospects list, Gardiner's offense has calmed as he develops into a defenseman. He's more judicious with his coast-to-coast flybys, and not as likely to bring the puck up if he can thread a needle. But make no mistake, that strong and effortless stride is still there. I'd liken his skating ability to a football leaving Dan Marino's hands-- the release point is instant, with no labored movement, but the ball moves as though it's been shot out of a canon. Gardiner's decision to use that skill sparingly would be welcome on the current Ducks squad, where it is much more important for a defenseman to jump into the play than create the play himself.
Gardiner also had his shot on display this weekend, wristing a bullet from the point and giving the Badgers their first goal on Saturday. His wrister is deceptive, quick, hard and accurate, but he doesn't insist on it. He seems to prefer the pass to holding the puck, faking it, waiting for lanes to open, etc. And that shows good decision making on his part.
All in all, Gardiner's offense is shaping up nicely. Osiecki has helped him avoid some major pitfalls in converting from forward, but a few pitfalls remain.
The one thing that is starting to bother me about Gardiner is his performance when plays slow down. His movement and decision making looks very natural when defending an outnumbered attack or defending a player on the rush, but he seems indecisive when the puck isn't moving. He seems to have trouble communicating with teammates when there's a scrum for the puck, and so he never leaves the net, or does so too late to support the play. He also seems to have trouble resetting on breakouts, especially when a forward comes down below the hashmarks. Again, it seems to be a communication issue, but the miscues lead to sloppy movement out of the defensive zone and, on one occasion, a lethal turnover by Gardiner in front of his goaltender. Of course, these issues are related to advanced defensive decision making and are often cured by systems and philosophies that will make the call for him, but I have to say it's disheartening to see indecision from a player with so much on-ice awareness.
With McDonagh and Smith performing so well, this probably won't be his breakout year, but Gardiner is moving in the right direction. And if this year's upperclassmen leave for the pros next year, he is first in line to become Osiecki's point man in Wisconsin. The added responsibility (and perhaps captaincy) could flush out some of the hesitancy still present in his game.
Justin Schultz (2nd Round - 43rd overall - 2008 Entry Draft)
Justin Schultz is a fast and smooth skater. Gardiner might beat him in a foot race, but Schultz is the better skating defenseman. He can make quick and finessed moves. and he rarely relies on his ability to blow past a player. He knows how to draw a forechecker in before darting away from him, and MAN, can he dart away from him. He couples that skating ability with really smart hockey plays i.e. he doesn't just draw a forechecker behind the net, but he adjusts his reverse pass to the position of the forechecker and his blueline partner, allowing him to execute the play earlier or later in the sequence. He makes those kinds of heads-up plays consistently throughout a game, making them look natural and workmanlike.
It's that confidence that buys Schultz so much ice time as a freshman, not just at even strength but also on the power play and penalty kill. On the man-advantage, he's a reliable quarterback who, despite having a quick shot, relies on opening passing lanes and moving the puck as a unit. He's offensively creative, and he focuses on generating grade-A scoring chances. Shorthanded, Schultz is a natural defender, tying up sticks in front of the net almost absentmindedly. And his stick is a vice when he gets it under yours.
Finally, in sharp contrast to Gardiner, Justin Schultz communicates with his teammates. Despite being a freshman, he has no problem directing forwards on their positioning or talking to his defense partner. It's a mark of leadership, yes, but also just a sign of his brimming confidence as a defenseman in all game situations and all areas of the ice.
The one knock placed on him last year was that he was scrawny. That's no longer true. He doesn't look quite as beefy as Gardiner, but he's filled out. And with those extra pounds, he's added the durability to take some heavy checks and the strength to make some major defensive plays. Remember that thing about his stick being a vice? Well, how about him lifting a stick over a guy's head and throwing him to the ice à la Ryan Getzlaf on Niklas Kronwall? The Gophers broadcast team wanted three holding the stick calls on Schultz until they saw the vice put a player down.
I'm excited about Justin Schultz. I put him ahead of Mat Clark in my Prospects List, something I haven't seen on any other list. The simple reason is that Clark, despite the advantages of size and surgical defensive work, is not great with the puck. His touch on the puck becomes weak and imprecise when he's pressured, and that shows in passes, shots and dumps. But I really can't lay a quality knock on Schultz's toolkit right now, above or below the shoulders. If he continues to play this way, he'll be the jewel of Osiecki's corps BEFORE Gardiner leaves for the pros.