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The Pens need Justin Schultz, but he’s not going to fix all their problems

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Pittsburgh’s issues on defense run deeper than one return can fix

NHL: Calgary Flames at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Justin Schultz is about imminent, and that’s a great thing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Schultz is an excellent skater and also has good hands, vision and ability to move the puck out of his own zone. Add it up and he’s a player that can start breakouts wonderfully, either by moving his feet to get out of danger, or advancing the puck accurately with passes to keep possession for zone exits, which has been a huge trouble for the Pens.

As Josh Yohe touched on in the latest Pensburgh podcast (cheap plug), how many times have you seen Evgeni Malkin spin his wheels by spending too much time in the defensive zone? It’s been a noticeable trouble. Other than Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang, the Pens’ defense has been horrible at this element of the game all season long.

Jack Johnson gets piled on a lot - and deservedly so, frankly. But Olli Maatta has been as bad or worse all season, playing with a replacement level player in Juuso Riikola. Obviously this is where the Schultz absence hurts an incredible amount being as he has skills but is also right handed.

“I think it’s beneficial to have defensemen on their strong sides,” coach Mike Sullivan said on Monday after Schultz returned to join the team in practice. “When the puck comes around the wall in the offensive zone, it’s a much easier play to make on the forehand when you’re under pressure. Same thing on a neutral-zone counter or a breakout. When you can make the play on your forehand, it makes it a little bit easier, a little bit more efficient.

“When you add a right-handed shot like Schultz, now you’re adding a guy that has offensive instincts, that is a really good puck mover, that can help us with our transition game in so many different capacities.”

Losing a $5.5 million dollar defenseman for all intents and purposes all season so far (Schultz suffered his injury towards the beginning of the fourth game of the season) leaves a hole that’s tough to replace. The transition or breakout has definitely been a weakness in the Pens’ game this season.

Which is funny since that’s one of the micro-skills that Pittsburgh lauded Johnson for- being able to make excellent quick passes and help stay out of the zone. Needless to say that hasn’t really been the case. It’s also an ironic twist that for all the talk this past summer of “give Johnson a chance, playing on a good team will help him play at a higher level” talk has taken a bad turn. In fact, by many aspects Johnson is having one of the worst seasons of his career this year.

Per Natural Stat Trick, Johnson’s on ice metric of 3.3 Goals Against/60 at 5v5 play is the worst mark in his entire 13 year NHL career. The marriage with the Pens hasn’t brought out the best in him or helped him, in many ways it’s made him look even worse, a cruel twist on the hopeful thought that joining the Pens would be a rising tide to raise his play when it’s actually made him look even worse.

Jim Rutherford gets a lot of credit for “fixing his mistakes” like when he trades away players who aren’t fitting the system (Derick Brassard) or ships out players whose salary exceeds their contributions (Jamie Oleksiak, Matt Hunwick). Would Johnson fit in here?

The bigger problem may be that unlike Maatta and Riikola, Johnson hasn’t been made a healthy scratch yet this season. The Pens obviously liked Johnson enough to ignore he was a healthy scratch last year in Columbus and pay him a market rate salary/term to join Pittsburgh. They haven’t benched him, so it’s natural to believe they may not view his play as that problematic at this point. Can’t fix a problem that you don’t recognize and if the coach/management is still living in some sort of JJ blindspot that would be disappointing but probably not surprising given how the last six or seven months have gone with their comments and actions to sign and then play him.

Sullivan’s biggest item to solve or improve is likely going to be how to massage this situation and figure out how to have the defense get the forwards the puck. He’s already playing Letang 20:43 per night at even strength, the most in the Sullivan-era in Pittsburgh. But while Letang can eat a Herculean amount of minutes, he can’t play the entire game, which is going to open up the lesser players to have to

The team likely made their bed and now they will have to lie in it. So far that’s meant two subpar defensive pairings that can’t move the puck and concedes a lot of shots and goals against. Justin Schultz is a good player, but he can’t fix two pairs. Whether he’s going to be partnered with Maatta or Johnson, it’s a tough ask to prop up a player that’s been playing very poorly this season. At this point though, unless Rutherford gets very creative, there’s not a lot of realistic alternatives than to hope Schultz can buoy the core and others will stabilize their play.