Remember when a certain reporter from the Toronto Sun called Justin Schultz the worst player in the NHL last season and thought the Penguins were insane for trading for him? That claim was quickly thrown away as Justin Schultz was great down the stretch for the Penguins last season, albeit in a limited role, and he's become even better this season. Here's a few reasons as to why Justin Schultz is playing the best hockey of his career right now.
Paired up right: Justin Schultz will never be a top pairing defenseman. It's not who he is as a player and it's why he was struggling so bad in Edmonton prior to being traded to Pittsburgh. He was playing way too many minutes a game and committing costly turnovers on the ice since it seemed like he was dead tired out there. The Penguins noticed that and decided to put Justin Schultz on the third pairing with Ian Cole and worked to perfection last season as he saw less ice time and was making great decisions with the puck.
That has carried over into this season and he looks so much more comfortable carrying the puck into the offensive zone and defending in the defensive zone which I'll go more depth in later in the article. His CF% of 55.04 is the best on the team which is amazing considering that Kris Letang plays more minutes. His CF60 of 63.16 is also amazing this season as it ranks only behind Kris Letang. Schultz has also spent a lot of time this season on the second power play which he quarterbacks and the puck movement he illustrates on it is top notch. He has a cannon of a slap shot which leads to great scoring opportunities for the second unit. He's also at times worked with the first unit and they didn't miss a beat since Schultz was able to give it to the stars and let them do their thing. Schultz has been excellent on the third pairing this season and if Mike Sullivan decides to put him on the second pairing with Daley or Dumoulin, there's no doubt that he'll be able to continue this amazing level of play that he's showing.
Better defensively: One of the biggest criticisms that Justin Schultz faced while he was with the Oilers was that he was dreadful in his own zone and was horrible defensively. That did have to do with the fact that he was playing on the top pairing and that the Edmonton teams weren't that good but he's been outstanding in his own zone this season whenever he's on the ice.
Schultz has gone toe to toe with some of the best players in the world 1 on 1 in the defensive zone and he's made great plays to shut down the scoring opportunity. This past weekend in Tampa Bay he saved a goal as the puck was just about to cross the line and that led to Matt Murray robbing Valtteri Filppula of the tying goal. Schultz has also spent some time on the penalty kill for the Penguins this year and while they rank 27th at 76.7%, it's great to see that the coaching staff continues to have a lot of faith in Justin Schultz to play well in his own zone.
If Justin Schultz keeps this up for the rest of the year, the Penguins will have a big decision to make on signing Schultz long term since defenseman Trevor Daley is also a free agent at the end of this season.