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2015-16 Pensburgh Recap: Justin Schultz

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From the Oilers to the Penguins. From being booed to being cheered. From "worst player in the NHL" to Stanley Cup champion.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Players without any weakness are rare. But just because players have weaknesses doesn't mean that their strengths aren't valuable. Especially if their strength is creating offense. Justin Schultz is a perfect example of that.

The Penguins used his strengths as a scalpel to precisely target where their opponents had their softest weak spot. The Oilers tried to use the scalpel to cut down trees, and then acted surprised when the scalpel broke.

When the Penguins acquired Justin Schultz at the trade deadline, this is what Steve Simmons said about him:

"In my opinion, Justin Schultz was the worst player in the NHL this season. There was two places to put him, one was the press box the other was the American Hockey League. He didn't go to either of those spots. He's in Pittsburgh where he's a long-term project for them at a cheap price. It might work out two or three years down the road, he won't work out now."

While this is extreme example of a negative view of Justin Schultz, Simmons wasn't the only one to question the acquisition. Many people criticized Rutherford for not adding a more reliable, defensively sound d-man, while Schultz was seen as a long-term project:

But Schultz is a lottery ticket and the Pens need help on the blueline now. 

If Rutherford makes another move before Monday, this swap was a risk worth taking. If not though, he'll have a hard time defending the decision to waste an asset on Schultz when there were viable defenders on the market who could have helped right away.

After Rutherford traded for him, he noted his offensive abilities, while also acknowledging his defense being a weakness. What he targeted was someone who fit what Sullivan wanted to do, and provided them depth in the playoffs. This is what Rutherford said:

"Our approach was to go with more speed, more transition game from our backend. This is a player that's going to be able to help that.

"We're going to play a lot of games in March. Hopefully we're going to play a lot of games right through June and you need a lot of players."

In the end, Justin Schultz played 33 games for the Penguins in the regular season and the playoff, and tallied 12 points in that span. Since he joined the Penguins, he led all Penguins d-men in points per 60 minutes. The top four:

  • Schultz: 1.60 P60
  • Letang: 1.56 P60
  • Daley: 1.13 P60
  • Dumoulin: 0.85 P60

During the playoffs, TempoFreeHockey tracked passes, passing accuracy, turnovers, dump-ins, and much more from Penguins players. In the San Jose series, Schultz had one of the lowest turnover rates:

In addition to that, this looks at the rate at which Penguins players controlled the puck during the series. While Letang led, Schultz contributed as much at the other d-men.

What follows is a look at the Penguins xG in the playoffs. Expected goals, or xG, look at shots taken by a team, and calculates based on their angle, distance, type, etc., how likely it could have been a goal (explanation here).

All data is from Corsica.hockey. If you enjoy the insight it provides, consider supporting the website.

Playoff teams, 2007-2016, min. 700 minutes, 5v5

grey dot = 2007-2015
yellow dot = 2016

Above is a look at the teams that went the furthest in the playoffs since 2007. The further to the right, the more offense they created. The further down, the less expected goals they allowed. No team created more than the Penguins in that time frame, and only around 5 teams allowed them at a significantly lower rate than them.

Skaters, 2007-2016 Playoffs, min. 150 minutes, 5v5

grey dot = 2007-2015
yellow dot = 2016

Instead of the teams, this time a look at all skaters from 2007 to now in the playoffs and how well they generated offense (xGF60), and how well they suppressed expected goals against (xGA60). Justin Schultz is the furthest yellow spot to the right.

Some of that is because of when he played. The hardest series for the Penguins might have been the one against the Capitals, where he only played two games. Most of his time came against Tampa and San Jose. But even when only looking at the Penguins' results in those two rounds, he stands out (though to a lesser degree).

Penguins skaters vs Tampa & SJS, 5v5

During the playoffs, the d-men Schultz played the most against were Hedman, Polak, Dillon, Stralman, Braun, and Vlasic (all played between 30-25 minutes against him). The forwards were Brown, Tierney, Ward, Callahan, Spaling, Filppula, and Boyle.

Schultz was mainly partnered with Ian Cole. Among Penguins forwards, he played mostly with Malkin, Kunitz, Crosby, Rust, Hornqvist, Kessel, Hagelin, Bonino.

On paper this seemed to to be the weak spots of each team playing against each other, while being protected and sheltered by the top of the lineup. But with Schultz on the ice, the Penguins scored 9 goals and allowed 5 in all situations, and outscored their opponents by 6 to 5 at even strength. In the end, Schultz was part of the Penguins depth d-men and forwards that took advantage of the lesser depth of their opponents.

Verdict

To circle back to the Rutherford quotes from directly after the trade:

"We're going to play a lot of games in March. Hopefully we're going to play a lot of games right through June and you need a lot of players."

Schultz provided depth, once when Maatta's poor play got him scratched, and then when Trevor Daley got injured.

"Our approach was to go with more speed, more transition game from our backend. This is a player that's going to be able to help that."

Schultz helped offensively and found a way to play how the Penguins wanted him to, while they made his life easy with surrounding him with good players against easier competition. His positive contributions outweighed his occasional defensive issues, and he delivered what the Penguins were willing to give up a third round pick to get.

Ducks fans booed him because he used his CBA-given right to sign with another team.

Oilers fans booed him because their management failed year after year to build a successful team. Instead their lack of depth at each position put everyone in a position to fail.

Penguins fans cheered him because he was a contributing player on the 2016 Stanley Cup champions.

Future

After not receiving a qualifying offer from the Penguins, Justin Schultz is now an unrestricted free agent. He can still re-sign with the Penguins. but maybe another team liked what they saw during his stint with the Penguins. He might not win a Norris in the future, but that doesn't mean he can't be valuable to whoever signs him - just like he was valuable to the Penguins. But not every team may be able to put him in a position to succeed, and it would be smart for him and his future team to avoid another situation like the one with the Oilers.

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Feel free to vote in the poll below to grade Justin Schultz' season on a scale from 1 to 10. Vote based on your expectations for him coming into the season -- i.e., 1 being "he was incredibly disappointing and I never want to see him again", 10 being "he was outstanding even beyond my craziest expectations".