GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Justin Schultz was one of the most prolific defensemen in University of Wisconsin men's hockey history, so when he left after his junior season for the NHL, a sizable void was expected.
Schultz had two of the top five goal-scoring seasons for UW en route to scoring 40 goals in 121 career games. A two-time first-team All-American, he signed with Edmonton after leading the Badgers in points as a sophomore and goals as a junior, the latter representing a first in program history for a defenseman.
But production from the blue line this season hasn't fallen as much as it's plummeted, a development that's surprised even UW coach Mike Eaves with its rate of descent.
Going into a pivotal Western Collegiate Hockey Association series against seventh-ranked North Dakota Friday and Saturday nights at Ralph Engelstad Arena, the No. 19 Badgers have gotten 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) from their defensemen over 24 games.
Only Bemidji State (four goals, 20 assists) has a poorer output in the WCHA.
"The whole team's kind of been struggling this year to produce offense," UW junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli said. "I don't know if it's starting with us because the (defensemen) have generated in the past or if it's a result of the whole team struggling to find the back of the net."
The Badgers rank 44th out of 59 NCAA Division I programs in scoring offense at 2.33 goals per game and 51st in power-play conversion rate at 11.4 percent. They've scored two goals or fewer 16 times and been shut out on the man-advantage — usually a prime source of points for defensemen — in 17 games.
"Opportunities to get goals and assists have kind of dropped off a little bit," UW senior defenseman John Ramage said. "It's not that we're not offensive guys. We're just trying to play a sound defensive game and hopefully some offense will come up a little bit."
The Badgers are on pace to finish with fewer than 25 combined goals from their defensemen for the first time since 2006-07.
Despite the extreme drop-off, UW (11-8-5, 8-5-5 WCHA) has won six straight league games and climbed to within four points of the league leader St. Cloud State heading into the series vs. North Dakota (13-8-5), which is tied with the Badgers and Minnesota State-Mankato for fourth place.
The idea of finding someone to replace Schultz seems a bit of folly. He followed up a combined 34 goals as a sophomore and junior in college with 18 in 34 minor league games before emerging as an early post-lockout force for the Oilers.
Reflecting on all that, "you just come to realize how special he was here," Eaves said.
Schultz was the latest in a line of elite defensemen to come through UW. Five predecessors going back to 2009 have reached the NHL — Jake Gardiner, Jamie McBain, Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith and Cody Goloubef — and all had good offensive instincts.
"Looking back at the history, those guys definitely were at a whole other level offensively than what our (defensive) corps has right now," Simonelli said.
The heir apparent for Schultz was once Jordan Schmaltz, a Verona resident who was a first-round NHL draft pick of St. Louis in 2012. But he reneged on his commitment to the Badgers and signed with North Dakota after UW assistant coach and defensive guru Mark Osiecki left to become the coach at Ohio State in 2010.
While Schmaltz hasn't exactly set the world on fire as a freshman — he has seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) in 26 games — Eaves says UW is "still looking for who's the go-to-guy on that power play."
Freshman Kevin Schulze might be the guy, at least from a skating and playmaking standpoint, but he's been used exclusively on the No. 2 power play with Ramage.
"I don't think he's ready for (the No. 1 unit) yet," Eaves said of Schulze.
Simonelli and sophomore Jake McCabe, a second-round NHL draft pick of Buffalo, have logged the most time with the No. 1 power play, but Eaves has also used a fourth forward, senior center Derek Lee, at the point.
Matt Walsh, the UW interim assistant who oversees defensemen, said jumping into the rush and contributing to the offense requires a confidence, awareness and skill set that must be developed over time. That said, he's OK with the numbers, especially the 1.35 goals-against average in the last 14 games, because they show the unit has improved since he came on board to replace Bill Butters in late November.
"I'm comfortable with they way they're playing," Walsh said of his blue-liners, who are a combined plus-41 since his first full week of practice Nov. 26. "Their gap has been really pretty good and we're working on containing guys in the corners and getting guys away from the net so our goaltender sees the puck. Those little things I focus on.
"The other stuff … is a bonus as long as we keep it out of our net."