This is very belated, as I had no intention of posting about how the tournament went until a couple of readers specifically requested it. Things are relatively fresh in my mind, though, as I caught the early round replays on ESPNU the night before the Frozen Four.
The storylines for this year's Frozen Four were a potent Wisconsin blueline, none of whom had ever played in the tournament's finals, a Rochester team that upset a dynamic but flagging Denver squad, a rolling Boston College team and Miami (OH), sporting the best goaltending in the NCAA and the number one ranking in the Pairwise. The BC forwards would overwhelm Miami (OH) and shut out the high-flying Wisconsin Badgers on their way to the national championship.
As a preliminary matter, Justin Vaive did well for Miami (OH), but there's nothing new to report. He's a depth player, and while he has a little more confidence and finds his screen in front of the net better, the best thing about him as a prospect is that he plays in an established and successful program in Miami (OH). He's played with great players and gotten a taste of success (even if not championship success) as a role player. That's valuable, even if he isn't a skill prospect.
I took a closer look at this year's Badgers (and Schultz and Gardiner specifically) twice this season: once in November after their series with the Gophers and once in March after the WCHA Final Five. If you haven't read either of those, here are the important notes about this year's team going into the tournament.
1. Pairings - Badgers coach Mike Eaves and Assistant Coach (in charge of defenseman) Mark Osiecki put three underclassmen in their lineup this year, pairing each with an upperclassman. These pairings have stayed constant throughout the season.
Ryan McDonagh-Jake Gardiner (So.)
Cody Goloubef-Justin Schultz (Fr.)
Brendan Smith-John Ramage (Fr.)
2. Superstars - With the departure of last year's rearguard superstar Jamie McBain, there was an opportunity for another defenseman to take up the mantle as offensive force on the back end. Almost every member of the blueline had a history of offensive production, so it was anyone's guess who would emerge as McBain's successor. Unfortunately for Ducks fans, it was Brendan Smith and the only pairing that excludes both Anaheim prospects.
3. Different Goals - Jake Gardiner had a disappointing season statistically, but his goal this year seemed to be refining his defense. He was playing top pairing time, and he was approaching it with top pairing discipline, something Ryan McDonagh did last year. Justin Schultz, on the other hand, made the most of his opportunities and got his breakout season as a freshman. He's a power play wizard, and on most nights, he made it tough for the coach to decide which power play quarterback to send out: him or Smith. Basically, Gardiner primed himself for a slow season, working toward mostly internal goals; Schultz was looking for the year every freshman is looking to have.
Jake Gardiner (1st Round - 17th overall - 2008 Entry Draft)
Gardiner found his attack mode again toward the end of the season, but he's much more judicious with it now than when he was a freshman. Neither he nor Ryan McDonagh seemed particularly willing to shuffle off the pressures of the top pairing and jump below the hash marks the way McBain did last year, but between the two, McDonagh seemed to find himself in the low slot more often.
Gardiner also seems particularly susceptible to the game situation, playing noticeably looser in non-pressure situations. His goal against St. Cloud State was a key answering score, with him sneaking down the wing and firing a sniped shot from wide, but it wasn't a tying or go-ahead goal. It was a marker that took it from 2-1 to 3-1, and I'm not sure if this year's iteration of Gardiner would take that same risk tied or down, which is when having an offensive defenseman really counts.
The toughest negative for Gardiner was that he was on the ice for the first BC goal in the championship game. He was standing in front of his goaltender facing the open shooter, and he decided to go down to one knee. Mark Osiecki was a shot blocker in the NHL; his kids reflect that, but this seemed like a moment to challenge the shot or the shooter, not to play goaltender. Jitters may have been a factor as Smith/Ramage seemed to get the most time of any pairing while the game was still in question.
With the Badgers losing in the championship game and Gardiner coming off of a statistically disappointing year, I think he has to stay at least one more season. There's room for him to get stronger physically, even if he doesn't get more physical, and he has to find a way to completely reclaim the offensive confidence that made him such a great prospect as a converted forward. If he can get back to putting his effortless skating and strong shot on display every night, then he can get back to being a gamebreaker and stop letting this clutter of trying to become a qualified defenseman get in his way.
Justin Schultz (2nd Round - 43rd overall - 2008 Entry Draft)
I've stayed high on Justin Schultz, but the BC forwards reminded me that there's a next level, even within the NCAA. The offensive floodgates in the championship game opened over Schultz's head, as he was one-on-one with the shooter for the second and third Boston College scores. The plays seem identical from a defensive standpoint. Both players simply got another gear on Schultz while bringing the puck to the outside. The freshman put out his stick blade, but came up just shy of the puck both times. As with Gardiner, jitters could have been a factor, but if you only watched the championship game, you probably don't think much of Justin Schultz.
I'm not worried though, because as Ronnie Lott once said, "you learn the angles." Controlling your forward isn't always about defensive mobility; an ice rink isn't a straight track. Hampering and hitting a guy are about positioning, and specifically NOT trusting yourself to be faster or stronger than the other guy; you just have to be there first. That's something that shouldn't be too hard for Schultz to add to the repertoire, and as Lott said, it comes with staying in the game and just learning it more than anything else.
Schultz looks best on the man advantage, where his ability to quarterback looks next level. He has a great shot, which he showed when he opened tournament scoring for the Badgers from the point against Vermont, but he's also great at resetting plays and creating plays from the secondary or even third assist position. His line in the tournament was 2G and 2A with three of those points on the power play.
He's going to shine in any special teams contest, and that was where he looked best in the tournament. But as I've said before, Schultz is generally impressive for a converted defenseman. He waits for openings to jump into the offense, he escapes with speed to leave his forechecker significantly out of the play, he communicates well with his pairing partner and he generally plays things pretty textbook. He will learn to play shooters better, but his play with the puck doesn't really leave anything to be desired right now.