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Defenseman Justin Schultz’s on-ice performance sunk without d-zone help this season

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He’s a great puck-moving defenseman, but he struggles in his own zone and requires specific help that he didn’t get.

NHL: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the offseason coming a little earlier than expected, it’s time for us to take a more in-depth look at the Penguins with an individual lens to figure out what shined and what needs to be improved before October rolls around.

Justin Schultz’s interesting outing came first. Despite the fact that Schultz had one of the better playoff performances for the Penguins, the 29-year-old dealt with a myriad of ebbs and flows this season.

It was capped off by him getting his tibia snapped in the Penguins’ fourth game of the year vs. Montreal, and subsequently, forced him to miss 50-plus games. All the statistics and analysis mentioned from here on out are going to be in consideration of that major injury, so it’s best for us not to forget that.

That being said, Schultz did experience a tough year on the ice, and with the added responsibility of keeping the ship afloat with anchors like Jack Johnson attached to him for the foreseeable future (and a potential contract extension ultimately coming at the end of 2019-20), an evaluation of his play at this season’s end to see what was ailing him was inevitable.

We’ve already discussed general manager Jim Rutherford’s troubling season-ending comments about how he thinks the current blue line is “the best it has ever been” under his tenure in Pittsburgh, but one of the quotes from him that stuck out to me the most was this:

“You always like mobile defensemen. You like guys who can move the puck. We have at least one guy on each pairing who can move the puck. Now we have guys who can have some pushback.”

Schultz has always been known as one of the Penguins’ mobile defenseman that can move the puck and quarterback an offensive attack, so I thought to myself, does this general thought of balancing lines the way Rutherford likes to translate well on the ice? And if so, how much does Schultz get stymied by the “push back” players he’s paired with?

It turns out that the answer for the first question should’ve been yes, but in Schultz’s case actually ended up being no, and the answer for the second question is a lot.

Schultz’s TOI in a hand-tracked data sample is only roughly 50 even-strength minutes given his short season. In those minutes, Schultz showed an above average ability to prevent entries against, but didn’t do much work creating clean exits himself.

Creating clean exits has never been Schultz’s forte anyway, which is a bit surprising and odd since Schultz has the tools of a puck moving defensemen, but not the results in this metric.

Connect that data together with the fact that Mike Sullivan insisted he and Johnson play on the same pairing down the stretch (likely because of handedness, d-corps injuries, and the balancing effort cited by Rutherford), and one can surmise that Schultz’s performance will continue trending downwards as each season passes if his partner is Johnson. He needs to play alongside someone that can handle the duties of getting the puck out of the d-zone on a regular basis. Johnson was not that guy for him this season, even though he has always been advertised as that type of player due to his success in possession exits in the past.

According to trends, history suggests Johnson should tick back up in a positive manner in possession exits and possession exit percentage in a larger sample size as his seasons go on in Pittsburgh. So that’s a bit of good news. But if those numbers don’t improve, well, the Penguins will have a larger problem.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins controlled only 44.97 of all shot attempts, 44.97 of shots, 46.83 of all scoring chances, and, most notably, were outscored by opponents 16-11 (a number that looks a hell of a lot better than it could’ve thanks to the great play by Matt Murray) in 29 games and more than 383 minutes together in the regular season.

They got absolutely caved in on defense together and failed often at getting the puck cleared out of their zone.

Going even further, and considering the results, Sullivan deployed them in other situations the duo couldn’t handle. Johnson had 72.7 percent of the offensive zone starts in the postseason. Schultz followed at 71.4 percent, and surely enough, the pairing was out-scored 0-3 in the series.

Given that Schultz’s main partner in his return from injury was Johnson, and the two plotted in the “bad” quadrant while working together, their pairing simply didn’t work. It’s clear that Johnson, who has a history of negative expected goals share, dragged down Schultz’s performance.

That horse has already been beaten a lot recently, so we’ll move on and look at the other qualities of Schultz’s performance this season to get an idea of what to expect from him going forward if this defense (and his pairing) does in fact stay relatively the same next season.

To stick with the “bad,” we’ll open the rest of the critique with Schultz’s mediocre expected goals rates.

Schultz’s expected goals share was an issue in his limited TOI. He was Pittsburgh’s only blueliner to rate in the “bad” quadrant, giving up a greater than average rate of expected goals against while on the ice while generating below average rates of expected goals for.

As for the good, Schultz scored a couple of goals and deserved a couple more based on his shot quality. His rate of expected goals creation was trending positively as the season was wrapping up.

Schultz’s production rates were strong, as usual. He trailed only Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin in even-strength minutes per game and trailed only Letang and Jamie Oleksiak in points per 60.

To summarize, Schultz can command the offensive zone very well — that is his style after all. But his work in the defensive zone is decidedly underwhelming and pretty much always has been for the past three seasons. While he’s excellent at gaining the offensive zone, creating scoring chances, and playing beneath the blue line, Schultz often struggles with getting the puck out of the Penguins’ zone on the other end of the rink and requires a partner to assist him in doing so. Basically, it’s best not to confuse his talent as a “puck mover” with the ability to “get the puck out of the defensive zone.” And if Schultz can’t thrive in the offensive zone and play the style of hockey he excels at because he’s stuck playing defense in the other end of the rink, his effectiveness fades away into the background.

Since we all know Johnson is likely staying put, Schultz will suffer on a consistent basis if Sullivan continues to pair them together — that is, unless Johnson makes some big changes and starts putting up better possession exit numbers like he has in the past.

Just as well, Olli Maatta, a defensive-minded defenseman who seems to really jell with Schultz from a numbers perspective and excels at getting the puck cleared, might be on the trading block this offseason. So finding a partner for Schultz may turn into more frustrating trial and error by the head coach next season with new players on the roster.

Rutherford’s ideology of balancing the lines with a puck mover and a pushback player sounds great on paper, but when the push back player happens to be Johnson, the results speak for themselves.