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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Schultz Shines as a Penguin by @SpinMeWrite


Photo Credit: USA Today
When the Penguins acquired defenseman Justin Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers at the February trade deadline in exchange for a third round draft pick, many thought Penguins' GM Jim Rutherford had lost his damn mind. Phil Kessel's biggest supporter (ha!) Steve Simmons from the Toronto Sun had this to say about Schultz on deadline day:

“In my opinion, Justin Schultz was the worst player in the NHL this season. There was two places to put him, one was the press box the other was the American Hockey League. He didn’t go to either of those spots. He’s in Pittsburgh where he’s a long-term project for them at a cheap price. It might work out two or three years down the road, he won’t work out now.”

Nailed it once again, Steve.

Schultz did make an impact on day one and shows no signs of slowing down. He's been a solid on a pairing with Ian Cole and has been an essential puck-moving defenseman on the second power play unit in Trevor Daley's absence. Schultz has spent some time as a healthy scratch, but you would never know it the way he seamlessly weaves back into the lineup when called upon. No adjustment period needed. He just picks up where he left off.

Much was made of Schultz's atrocious plus/minus rating with the Oilers (he was -78 over the course of his Oilers career, if you're into that sort of thing), but it's hard to maintain a plus rating on a team as perennially bad as Edmonton. Especially as a rookie top-four defenseman getting the tougher matchups and extra minutes. 

In Edmonton, Schultz was over-hyped and expected to do too much with too little support. After forgoing his senior year at Wisconsin, the Oilers' management expected him to be the immediate answer to their problems. It was too much too soon and his development suffered.

Photo Credit: Edmonton Journal


Toward the end of his tenure in Edmonton, Schultz received much of the same treatment from fans and the media that Kessel was receiving in Toronto. Frustrated that the highly-paid Schultz wasn't living up to their expectations, fans were booing him during game introductions and blasting him on social media.


I know we've all been wrong some time or another on social media but it's hard not to smile when reading these.

Was it a gamble to get Schultz? Sure. There was a chance it was more than needing a change of scenery. But the Pens' front office did their homework. And much like with the other inhabitants of Jim Rutherford's Island of Misfit Toys, the Pens are reaping the rewards of the gamble.

I don't know how it is with other NHL clubs, but the Penguins are very generous towards new teammates and go way out of their way to make them feel welcome and at ease. Schultz is happy to be here and has benefited from a reduced role and fewer minutes. With the help of Sergei Gonchar, Schultz works hard to improve his weaknesses. And it shows.

Other than minor mistakes here and there (no hockey player is perfect), Schultz hasn't been the defensive disaster that he's been proclaimed to be. He handles the puck well and makes good decisions in the defensive zone. He's been great on the second power play unit and unlike most of the other Pens it seems, isn't afraid to pull the trigger and shoot the puck.

“I heard people say in Edmonton that he’s a defensive liability and all that, and I haven’t seen any of that since he’s been here,” Ian Cole said recently. “He’s been very responsible, very smart, very calculated in how he plays defense and joins the rush. And when he joins the rush, he’s a special player.”

And you know what Edmonton? The Pens love him. The fans love him. According to Pierre McGuire, Mario Lemieux loves him. We love him so much, a lot of fans (myself included) were surprised when Schultz was scratched  and were clambering for him to replace a struggling Olli Maatta in the Tampa Bay series. Add that to the long list of "Things I Would've Never Thought in December." 

Schultz becomes a restricted free agent after the season. He's expressed joy in playing in Pittsburgh and I can see him signing for less money to play in a stable, winning environment. Sullivan's not going anywhere unlike his carousel of coaches he had in Edmonton. 

Plus, his Penguins uniform has done wonders for confidence. His lack of confidence was a huge part of his decline in Edmonton. I think it's a super suit. It's been known to give some players the ability to hoist the Stanley Cup in victory. He might want to keep it on for awhile if that happens. Black and gold looks good on him. 

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