This was always going to be an important year for Justin Schultz.
The Penguins needed him to have a big year because he was expected to help power their second defense pairing — alongside Marcus Pettersson — and play what might be an even bigger role on the power play. Overall, that pairing has produced solid results. They have played big minutes and produced strong possession numbers. The goal differential could be better, but their PDO points to a duo that has probably been a little on the unlucky side. They have had some shifts where haven’t looked particularly good, but overall I think they’ve been passable.
Schultz needed to have a big year for himself because he is in the final year of his current contract and could position himself for one more big payday on a free agent market where he might be one of the top defenders available.
But has he really had that that type of season? And how would you rate his overall play this season? And how confident would you be in potentially trying to re-sign him?
Complicating things in this discussion on Wednesday is the fact he exited practice and did not return.
For as decent as the numbers look alongside Pettersson, I still think I would put his season — strictly looking at his individual play; not his play as part of a defense pairing — a little more toward the underwhelming side, with the hope that he still has more to produce and contribute.
Things probably hit their low-point for him on Tuesday night when his miserable overtime shift helped cap off the Islanders’ late rally to steal a point away from the Penguins. While Schultz has carried a reputation for being an offensive defenseman and a “puck mover” almost all of his value offensively comes from the offensive zone and on the power play. He is not terribly effective at starting the play out of the defensive zone and breaking them out of the zone. That was on display in overtime when he turned what could have been an odd-man rush for the Penguins into a game-winning goal for the Islanders.
That came after he and Jack Johnson had an especially bad showing at the end of a penalty kill for the Islanders’ third goal to really jumpstart their comeback.
While Tuesday’s game was the one that really stood out on the negative side, it’s really just been an underwhelming performance in general for Schultz on an individual level. He hasn’t always been bad, he just hasn’t always been what the Penguins have needed.
Even with his improvement after arriving in Pittsburgh he was still always a flawed player (the zone exits, defensive zone play) but had enough strengths that the Penguins could work with to make him a useful and productive player in a way the Edmonton Oilers never could.
Even when he had to step up in Kris Letang’s absence during the 2016-17 season and take on a bigger role he played well enough to get some serious Norris Trophy consideration.
Right now all of the flaws still exist, but the strengths haven’t consistently been there. The team isn’t scoring goals when he is on the ice — at even-strength or on the power play — while the scoring chances against increase
If he is not going to produce on the offensive end and make a difference on the power play — neither of which has happened this season — then there really isn’t a lot here to make a positive impact.
I do like that the shot volume is up for him (over two per game, and he does have a shoot-first mentality on the power play), and it is very possible that the return of healthy forwards for him to get the puck to could help pump up the assist numbers to where they are supposed to be. But that is not a guarantee to happen.
That is a concern for both the short-term — because the Penguins need him — and the long-term because they have to figure out what to do with him.
I was skeptical of re-signing him at the start of the year, and so far there has been nothing on the ice that has made me change my opinion there. The Penguins are already a team dealing with significant salary cap limitations and they aren’t really in a position to commit the likely $6 million (or beyond) per year that a soon-to-be 30-year-old Schultz will probably still be able to command. Especially when they still need to re-sign Pettersson to a long-term contract.
So what do you think of Schultz so far this season?
What would you like to see happen with him over the next few months and beyond?