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With Justin Schultz likely out long-term, Pittsburgh’s defense must tap into its depth

Schultz suffered a very serious looking foot injury vs. Montreal. The blueline has some figuring out to do.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no way to sugar coat it; Justin Schultz’s gruesome looking foot/ankle injury suffered Saturday night vs. the Montreal Canadiens is likely going to keep him out of the lineup for a long time.

Schultz was reported to be leaving the Bell Centre on crutches with his foot in a walking boot. Mike Sullivan didn’t confirm any assumptions during his post-game media conference, and mentioned that the team wanted to properly re-evaluate and diagnose him back in Pittsburgh. However, the manner in which Schultz suffered the injury sure does make it look like his foot is broken — or worse. If he managed to tear anything, this situation could end up being considerably more complicated.

Warning: this clip is a bit graphic and not for the weak stomached.

But until those suspicions are verified, the timetable on Schultz’s return remains a question mark, and the Penguins have to figure out a solution to replace the huge role he plays for the blueline going forward. His absence is going to be a bit of a problem, as he’s been as solid as ever for Pittsburgh these past two seasons.

Firstly, Schultz is one of the few right-handed defensemen that regularly starts, apart from Kris Letang. It’s not a coincidence that those two are the quarterbacks of each power play unit. Because of Schultz’s job to run the point for the second group, Sullivan is going to have to appoint someone new and capable enough to take over. The question is, who remaining will that be?

The most probable options that come to mind are Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, or newcomer Juuso Riikola. All three of them are decent elements in the attacking zone and can play the right side, despite their handedness. However, none of these players truly jump off the page for confidence sake, and it’s very feasible that the PP2 ultimately suffers because of it. Johnson had strong game vs. the Habs, and after Riikola had some careless errors in the opening frame (i.e., turning the puck over, appearing less confident, etc.) he eventually settled down and played much better in the third period.

No. 7 defenseman Chad Ruwhedel will have his named called as the Penguins move forward with their season as well, because wouldn’t you know, he’s right-handed. Pittsburgh is very lucky it has such a serviceable guy in Ruhwedel on their depth chart. It eliminates the need to promote a less talented player from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, as the Baby Pens’ better d-men prospects like Zach Trotman and Ethan Prow aren’t ready for chunks of NHL minutes just yet.

We’ll provide updates to Schultz’s status as they’re made available.