With a good pedigree and a strong rookie season, it appeared that big things were on the horizon. A career high in points during his sophomore campaign seemed to reinforce a long future in the league, but by his fourth season he had fallen out of favor with his team and was unceremoniously shipped out to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. Remember those choose your own adventure books? Flipping ahead will show how this new development in Justin Schultz's career will turn out, but flipping back shows a very similar story with Matt Niskanen. And up to this point in his career, Schultz has had noticeable similarities to the former Penguins blueliner.
While he didn't have the same amount of hype as Justin Schultz coming into the league, Matt Niskanen was drafted higher than Schultz, taken 28th overall in the 1st round by the Dallas Stars in 2005. And when he scored 7 goals with 19 assists during his rookie season in 2007-08 playing with Sergei Zubov, it appeared that Niskanen had a bright future ahead of him with the Stars. And in his second season, he improved on the offensive numbers with 6 goals and 29 assists, though there were warning signs when his +22 turned into a -11. Of course, knowing what we know now, Niskanen went from a sky high 102.2 PDO his rookie season to an incredibly unlucky 97.7 PDO in his second year, likely helping to contribute to seeing his goals for drop from 56.7% to 45.2%. While it seemed like Niskanen was regressing defensively, his underlying possession numbers actually improved from his first year to his second.
But the seeds of doubt were planted, and when Niskanen's offensive numbers diminished in his 3rd and 4th seasons his earlier successes were written off as propped up by Zubov and a fluky start to his career, and he fell out of favor with the Stars organization. A year into a 2 year, $1.5 million AAV contract and with Dallas looking for help on the blueline, the Stars packaged Niskanen with James Neal and traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Alex Goligoski. The Stars had moved on past the under-performing blueliner, and the throw-in to the Neal trade ended up turning out much better than anyone could have possibly imagined.
Could history repeat itself with Schultz in Pittsburgh? Schultz entered the league with more hype and had a more successful rookie season than Niskanen, posting 8 goals and 19 assists in just 48 games during the lockout shortened season. And the next season, when he had 33 points on 11 goals and 22 assists, his pts/60 at even strength actually increased to 0.89 from 0.83 despite his points per game decreasing. But 0.56 pts/gm looks better than 0.45, which looks bigger than the 0.38 pts/gm he posted in his 3rd season. Not to mention, a -17 followed by a -22 followed by a -17 looks even worse for those who put stock into those numbers.
While Schultz is never going to be Norris caliber in the defensive zone, his numbers over his first 3 seasons show he was doing an increasingly good job of minimizing the time he was spending in his own zone. While this season has clearly been a trying year for Schultz that has seen him take a step back, he still has the same talent and skill set that he had last year, and a change of scenery could be a great boost to his career, much like it was for Niskanen. Like Bylsma, Sullivan also has installed a system that encourages defensemen to jump up into the play to keep the puck in the zone and values quickly getting the puck up the ice. It's a strategy that will play to Schultz's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses. His defensive game will need to be refined, but with a much stronger supporting cast in Pittsburgh he has a prime opportunity to turn the narrative on his career around and become the type of offensive defenseman the league was expecting when he entered the league.