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Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz took opposite results from returns from long injuries

Two serious injuries, and two different paths back

Pittsburgh Penguins v Winnipeg Jets

Brian Dumoulin did an interview the other day to give an update on the times for him, and one of the items mentioned about his brief return prior to the NHL “pausing” the season stood out.

“It’s very weird,” he said. “It’s very strange, but I was very lucky and I’m grateful that I was able to get those five games in before the break. Just mentally I think that is going to benefit me, being able to know what my routine was, what I had to do to get back. I felt like when I was playing, I was getting back to being a very solid player.

“So it showed me that I could still come back from an injury like that. I had never been out that long before in my career, so I had to prove to myself that I would be able to come back and still compete and play at a high level in the most important and crucial part of the season. So I think I did that. I think I was satisfied with how I came back.”

The interesting portion is about how confidence and the mental side of hockey. It’s an element that sometimes is tough to quantify, but certainly very important. As a fan, one may just assume high-level professionals are always in peak condition, but the mind is a funny thing. NHL players aren’t video game characters who will perform the same every single day, they’re humans who have good days and bad, and also insecurities.

Dumoulin can take confidence that his major injury, the first of his career, is behind him, and he was able to perform at the same high level that he is accustomed to. That, of course, is a satisfying feeling to be reassured, and good timing too since if Dumoulin was a couple weeks back he wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to play at all before the league got shutdown.

And Brian Dumoulin talking about his fairly seamless return from a major ankle injury brought to mind another Penguins defenseman who hasn’t really re-found his game as easily. Justin Schultz broke his ankle in October 2018, and he hasn’t been the same ever since. It’s a different injury than Dumoulin (whose ankle was sliced by an errant skate), but the commonality of rehabbing a major injury draws a parallel.

Schultz’s numbers pre-injury and post-injury are pretty telling.

The remarkable thing is that Schultz’s offense dried up. His assist rates and totals were right on par with Kris Letang as best on the team on defense. Since coming back from injury, he’s fallen to one of the worst producing defensemen on the team. His xGF, Corsi and scoring chance numbers have all gone from above-average to below, even though his rate of goals allowed has remained the same. It’s a picture of a player who once produced a ton of chances and points shrinking into a player not helping the team any longer.

For Dumoulin, the league stoppage due to the coronavirus is not as big of a deal. For Schultz, it could be a chance to reset and restart, but it’s also poor timing. Schultz is a free agent after this season. Even as recently as the beginning of this season, he should have been on the path to parlay his success as a multi-time Stanley Cup winner and offensive-minded right shot defenseman into a big payday.

Now, with salary cap uncertainty and a poor 2019-20 season, that seems a lot more uncertain. Perhaps his reputation and skill as a right shot will land him an attractive deal. But it won’t be because of his performance since coming back from an injury.

Dumoulin also had an interesting thought and perspective as a player about resuming play. It seems weird that the Stanley Cup might still be awarded, even in possibly an empty venue. Will that lessen it to players? Nope.