When the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Justin Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers last season, I figured it was a smart, low-risk move for a player with a lot of talent but very little refinement. Schultz’s defensive deficiencies were well documented in Edmonton, and the turbulent situation there did very little to develop him as a player.
Even so, last season I noticed that Schultz’s much-maligned defensive riskiness was not as bad as previous seasons, and it was his offensive game that had fallen apart. Fast-forward to this season and Schultz already has 24 points in 38 games, only seven of which have come on the power play, meaning he’s only four points from his career high in even strength points — in just under half the season.
Schultz’s improvement hasn’t just been on the offensive side though, he’s seen his two-way play improve significantly over last season. So let’s compare the two years in a broad cross section of his play to see what exactly has changed.
For the sake of simplicity, relative turnover rates are inversed so that positive = good and negative = bad.
The huge improvement in shot attempt differential for Schultz is made more impressive by the fact the Penguins haven’t always been able to hide him behind Kris Letang’s pairing, as he’s missed a decent chunk of the season due to injury. Where that improvement is coming from isn’t actually Schultz’s defensive zone play, which is still decent but not quite as strong as last season when he saw a vast improvement that very few noticed. It’s the offensive and neutral zones where Schultz has gone from merely okay to very good.
His pass success rates back that up as well, and the Penguins have done a good job taking advantage of his skill set by getting him more involved in the neutral and offensive zones, and less involved in the defensive zone, which mitigates a bit of the risk his reputation for costly turnovers brings.
All this looks good for Schultz, but it doesn’t tell us much about the actual plays he’s making with the puck, so let’s get into that, once again comparing him with his defensive counterparts.
The picture looks a little less rosy for Schultz when you look at what he’s actually doing on the ice, but still shows an improved player overall. He is not a great transition player, evidenced by his poor possession-driving plays relative to the rest of the Penguins’ defencemen. A lot of that deficit comes from his defensive zone tendencies, where he prefers to play safer than earlier in his career, letting his partner Ian Cole recover and transition the puck out of the zone.
Where Schultz has ramped up his aggressiveness has been in the offensive zone, where he recovers loose pucks on blue line holds, the odd forecheck, and challenging opponents who have the puck. Going from being a negative possession player who was below average at getting the puck away from opponents to a positive possession player who is above average at winning those battles is a huge change for Schultz, and coincidentally it’s led to a big increase in generating even strength scoring chances. Last season Schultz was producing third pairing offence at even strength, while this season he’s been comparable to Morgan Rielly and Jeff Petry, solidly inside the top-30 defencemen.
None of this is to say that Schultz is now an elite defenceman, because he’s still closer to a No. 4 type guy on most teams — but going from replacement level to a top-4 defenceman on a contending team is extremely impressive. Schultz is an interesting case because of the vastly different situations he’s been placed in during his short career, and a reminder that sometimes what we think of a player may have more to do with the situation he’s in than the talent he has.
It’s certainly possible Schultz will revert to his old self and become a problem for the Penguins, but the structure he now has to support him in Pittsburgh makes this look pretty unlikely. Both he and the Penguins’ coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for turning a reclamation project into a solid contributor.