Justin Schultz is the poster child for the Pittsburgh Penguins defense reconstruction unit.
By now, you know what that means.
Their ability to take somebody else’s broken player, turn them into something useful, and get a treasure out of another team’s trash.
Every defensemen that gets acquired by the Penguins is usually analyzed within this context.
“Just look at what they did with Justin Schultz...”
“If they can fix Justin Schultz...”
“Hey it worked for Justin Schultz...”
There was a time where I bought into that mindset, but with each passing season and with the current state of the defense I’m not sure I do (or that anyone should) because for every Schultz, there’s an Oleksiak that they didn’t really fix.
Still, Schultz has been a significant part of the Penguins’ defense since the middle of the 2015-16 season and as he enters the final year of his contract is one of the players next in line for a potential long-term contract IF the Penguins view him as a long-term piece of their puzzle.
Schultz is a complicated player to evaluate because I feel like the narrative around him and his resurgence in Pittsburgh is more dominant than the player himself. If we look at his Penguins tenure objectively and on a year-to-year basis it probably breaks down like this:
2015-16: He was fine in a very sheltered role and was not trusted in big spots
2016-17: He was excellent, without question the best season of his career
2017-18 and 2018-19: He was probably what you expect him to be based on his previous reputation in Edmonton — a strong player in the offensive zone and a weak in the defensive zone.
Schultz’s future presents quite a dilemma for the Penguins as they not only build their team for the future, but also this season.
The Penguins are in a tough spot with him because their defense has been zapped of a lot of its mobility in recent years and Schultz is one of the few players remaining at the position that still brings some of that to the table. Or at least creates the illusion of it. The thing about Schultz, though, is that he’s not really a great “puck-moving” defender when it comes to moving the puck out of the defensive zone, and it becomes an even bigger issue when he is paired with a “stay-at-home” defender that also lacks puck-moving ability (like a Jack Johnson). It leads to extended time in the defensive zone, and that is not where you want the Penguins to be playing.
His value is once the puck gets into the offensive zone, where he truly is a dangerous weapon whether it is 5-on-5 or the power play. He is the only player on the blue line outside of Kris Letang that brings that dimension to the team, and outside of Pierre-Olivier Joseph there does not really appear to be anyone else in the system that has that potential.
Because of that I am sure there is some strong incentive to try and work out a new long-term deal with him.
But is that really the best course of action for the Penguins given the rest of their roster?
Schultz will be 30 years old when any new contract begins, and given what he makes right now will probably be in the $5-7 million per year range. I know the Penguins’ win-now mentality and “future be damned” approach to this current core of players (and it is the correct approach) but I don’t know if investing heavily long-term in another player on the wrong side of 30 is the best way to win, short-term or long-term.
Especially when that player has as many glaring flaws as Schultz does at a position of such importance.
The Athletic’s Josh Yohe listed Schultz as the “X-Factor” on his most recent list of most likely Penguins players to be traded this offseason, which is definitely intriguing. The Penguins need to shed more salary and probably have at least one more trade coming this summer. But I am not sure if Schultz is the way to go because he still provides value right now and is still the type of player they need this season. If you are looking to shed salary there are several other areas you can address.
Honestly, the best way to handle Schultz might be to let him play out this season, squeeze as much value as you can out of him in a lame-duck, contract year, then once it is over thank him for his services as he heads to free agency.
He has too much value to get rid of right now.
He probably does not have enough value to keep beyond this season on the type of contract he would require.
You don’t need to trade every player whose contract is about to expire, and you don’t always need to have something to show for losing a player. Sometimes all you need to show for a player is the four or five years they gave you and all you need to get is the new salary cap space their departure creates.
The Penguins do not need to divorce themselves from Justin Schultz just yet, but they also probably should not commit to him beyond this season.