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With Justin Schultz no longer in the fold to run the power-play, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves will hand the keys to the car over to fellow Canadian Derek Lee.
While Justin Schultz was an all-around great defenseman, in no area did he affect the outcome of a game more than on the power-play. Schultz had a special knack for being able to get pucks through screens and bodies to the net from the 'QB' position on the power-play.
From the moment Schultz stepped on campus in Madison, he was the guy Mike Eaves trusted to run his top unit. That first season included teammates and future NHL'ers like Derek Stepan, Blake Geoffrion, Ryan McDonagh, Craig Smith, Jake Gardiner, and Brendan Smith. Yet Schultz was the guy trusted to make things run effectively.
Last season alone Schultz chipped in 18 points (7 goals, 11 assists) while the Badgers were on the man advantage. That's just over 40% of his points for the season. Over Schultz's Wisconsin career, he's recorded 63 points (21 goals, 42 assists) on the power-play. That's roughly 56% of the points he recorded while at Wisconsin.
But Schultz is gone now. The West Kelowna, B.C. native gave up his senior season to sign an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers. With no ready-made fill in coming from the defensive corps, Eaves will turn to fellow western Canadaian Derek Lee to man the position this season.
Like most teams, the Badgers have traditionally had a defenseman run their power-play. Jamie McBain is a name that should come to mind to most Badger fans, as he was the last man to hold the job before Schultz took over in 2009-10.
But it's not unprecedented that the Badgers use a forward on the point on the man advantage. Back in the 2006-07 season, Wisconsin relied upon forward Andrew Joudrey—another fellow Canadian—to effectively run the power-play from the blue-line.
That season had its up and downs, as they played with a target on their backs much of the year coming off that national championship run in 2006. But Joudrey did an admirable job, chipping in four goals and ten assists on the power-play while leading the club in points that season with 29.
Lee will be asked to play a big role this season in taking over for Schultz, but it's something that Eaves feels his senior can handle thanks in part to his experience in juniors.
"We're going to give (Derek) Lee an opportunity. He's played that part playing junior hockey. He skates well enough backwards that I don't think he's a liability," Eaves said Monday.
"He has good vision, he has good skills. I don't think he has quite the magic shot that Justin (Schultz) had, not many people do. But I think he'll be able to fill that role for us."
Eaves is accurate in his assessment of what Lee brings to the table from a talent standpoint. His career got off to a slow start, but when healthy Lee has shown flashes of why he was such a highly touted recruit coming out of the British Columbia Hockey League.
With the puck on his stick, Lee carries a lot of the same traits that make Mark Zengerle so dynamic. They both have off the charts vision and passing skills, and with both of them together on the power-play, it's going to make the jobs of the other three on the unit a lot easier.
Given what Eaves has run in the past with the man advantage, I would expect to see a #1 power play unit of Lee, Zengerle, Michael Mersch, Jake McCabe, and Tyler Barnes. McCabe and Mersch are both left handed.
Expect to see McCabe on the weak-side point spot where he played last season, and where Jake Gardiner and Brendan Smith have played in previous seasons. Mersch—to no one's surprise—will likely be causing havoc out in front of the net with his big body. Mersch was very effective in that role last season, and I don't see any reason for that to change.
As for the strong side, you'll likely see a right handed forward working the corner. In my opinion that has to be Tyler Barnes. He's strong and tenacious enough to win battles below the goal-line, but has enough skills to be able to feed the puck out of the corner.
On the half-wall will be Zengerle once again. He played over there last year, and will probably now see more attention with Schultz no longer on the ice. That makes the job of Lee and Barnes important because they will need to be effectively 'check downs' in case Zengerle runs into trouble.
Is this going to be the greatest power-play in Wisconsin history? No, but it doesn't have to be either. There is enough talent on the ice that I think the Badgers can improve on their 20.6% conversion rate from last season. Even if they don't, this team is still going to be much improved from last season. If their power-play grows like I think it can, this could be another scary team come playoff time.
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