PITTSBURGH – To truly appreciate how far Justin Schultz has come in the last three months you have to reflect back on how uncomfortable his life became in Edmonton.
Mistakes compounded as his confidence slipped. Fans began booing him mercilessly at Rexall Place as another Oilers season slid down the drain. The once-prized free-agent signing became a scapegoat for those looking to air their frustrations.
No wonder the Feb. 27 trade that brought him to Pittsburgh was such a welcome change. Reflecting back on it now, he calls it a “second chance.”
“My confidence was pretty low near the end of my time in Edmonton,” said Schultz. ”(The trade) just gave me more confidence; even before I played a game I got more confidence just being in a new environment. I have nothing against Edmonton, I enjoyed my time there.
“But sometimes players need a change of scenery and I think that this has helped me.”
About the last place the 25-year-old defenceman expected to find himself at the end of a difficult season was in the running for the Stanley Cup. He’s played the last three games of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa after replacing the struggling Olli Maatta, and picked up a pair of assists in the process.
The biggest change he’s seen since joining the Penguins is the expectations placed on him.
He was immediately cast as a top-four defenceman right from his rookie season in Edmonton – former GM Craig MacTavish infamously called him a future Norris Trophy winner in the making – but the Penguins are taking a more modest outlook on his capabilities.
After giving up a 2016 third-round pick to get Schultz, they’ve essentially used him as a bottom-pairing guy who also receives some minutes on the power play.
“We like to see our players for what they can do and not what they can’t do,” explained Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s our responsibility to try to put them in situations where they can play to their strengths.”
For Schultz that meant quarterbacking a 4-on-3 power play in Game 3 of this series while Kris Letang served a penalty. He was on the ice with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, and earned an assist on Crosby’s goal.
His abilities mesh nicely with a team that likes to push the pace and score goals.
“He’s a very good puck mover,” said Sullivan. “He has good offensive instincts. He has good mobility. He can really shoot the puck. And so we’ve tried to put him in positions where he can play to those strengths, and he’s done a real good job for us.
“He doesn’t try to do too much. He plays within himself.”
That is where the move has paid the most dividends for Schultz. He’s managed to clear his mind since arriving in Pittsburgh and feels as though he’s been put in a position to succeed.
“I’ve had a lesser role here than I did in Edmonton, which I think has helped me,” he said. “Just kind of feeling comfortable and contributing, working on my game. Obviously we’re having a lot of fun, which is a huge positive.”
There aren’t many signs of the self-doubt that plagued him earlier in the year.
Back then he wondered if another NHL team would even be willing to acquire him – a once-unthinkable notion given that he had more than 20 suitors in the summer of 2012 when he entered the league as a free agent following three years at the University of Wisconsin.
Schultz chuckles now because the Penguins were one of the few who didn’t originally attempt to sign him.
“I’m so grateful that I got this chance and this team believed in me,” he said.
When the times were toughest in Edmonton back in February, a number of his former Oilers teammates spoke out in favour of Schultz.
Taylor Hall scolded the fans for booing him – “We play in a passionate city, a city that loves their hockey … sometimes a little bit too much,” Hall told reporters – and predicted that better days were ahead for the defenceman.
Here we are a couple months later and he’s part of a deep playoff run. He’s feeling the support from his former teammates in Edmonton, too.
“I still keep in touch with all of them,” said Schultz. “I’m really good friends with (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins (and) he’s loving it right now. He had never thought I would be here, we always thought it would be in Edmonton.
“He’s happy for me and hopefully we can keep going.”
With a pivotal Game 5 in this series set to be played at Consol Energy Center on Sunday, Schultz will arrive to the rink happy.
That’s a welcome change.
“It’s fun getting cheered, not booed,” he said with a gap-toothed grin.