The Pittsburgh Penguins made a splash on July 1 — the start of the NHL’s free agency period — but it was to keep one of their own. Justin Schultz, once deemed a bust and even described as “the worst player in the NHL” by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, cashed in with the Penguins for a three-year contract that will pay him $5.5 million annually.
And the Penguins couldn’t be happier about the price.
Pittsburgh acquired Schultz for a third-round pick on February 27, 2016. At that point, the Penguins weren’t searching for an impact blue liner but instead, they needed an individual to provide some depth — but that individual needed a certain set of skills. A mobile puck-mover was important, and despite his struggles with the Edmonton Oilers up to that point in his career, Schultz fit the mold. Why not take a chance on him for that price? Especially considering the Penguins’ success with reclamation projects and the fact that an in-depth look at Schultz’s numbers with the Oilers told a different story than the narrative that surrounded him.
The Price is Right
Early in the process, with the Penguins and Schultz negotiating a new deal, many assumed his annual value would fall between $4.5 – $5 million. But the market was set in advance of July 1 with Dmitri Orlov signing a new deal in Washington that carried a $5.1 million cap hit and other defenders in a similar class falling in the same price range. Consider the comparison below with Kevin Shattenkirk, the marquee name among free agents this summer. Shattenkirk signed with the New York Rangers for $6.65 million per year.
Shattenkirk holds a slight advantage in shot creation and surprisingly, despite his reputation for being subpar defensively, a fairly large advantage in shot suppression. However, the two are very similar in total production and Schultz will cost the Penguins roughly $1.1 million less per season. If Schultz can continue playing at the level he’s found over the last two seasons in Pittsburgh or — even improve as he transitions into a larger role — this deal is a bargain for the Penguins.
According to NaturalStatTrick.Com, with Schultz on the ice at even strength, the Penguins accounted for over 51-percent of shot attempts in 2016-17. They owned 57.7-percent of high-danger attempts and 53.5-percent of scoring chances. He began the season playing third line minutes but with injuries plaguing the Penguins, he was elevated frequently and ended up averaging 20-minutes and 26-seconds of ice time throughout the regular season.
Oh, and he finished with 51 points in 78 regular season games, good for fifth on the team and first among defensemen. His .65 points per game ranked eighth overall in the NHL among blue liners and all of this just barely scratches the surface of his impact when you also consider his postseason production and timely goals.
With this contract, it’s clear the Penguins see Schultz as a staple in their top four. Some have questioned whether or not he’s ready for that role on a full-time basis but his results speak to his abilities. In looking at his most common opponents, his ice time is spread among some of the top forwards in the league, so he hasn’t been sheltered or hidden from dangerous skaters.
And his offensive contributions speak for themselves.
Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, and Brian Dumoulin will likely round out that group for the foreseeable future but Ian Cole will obviously play a large role. Matt Hunwick — signed via free agency after two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs — provides solid depth as a sixth defenseman and Chad Ruhwedel offers a suitable number seven. Pittsburgh’s blue line is in good shape heading into 2017-18.
While general manager Jim Rutherford searches out trade partners to fill their third line center void, I’d expect things to be quiet when it comes to their defense corps. Unless, of course, someone is moved out to fetch that elusive center they’re looking for — but that’s highly unlikely at this point. Losing Trevor Daley after the 33-year old signed a three-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings should prove to have a minimal impact on this group, and that isn’t a knock on Daley but instead, a testament to this group’s depth.
Now, with all of the contract stuff out of the way, Schultz can enjoy his summer celebrating his second consecutive Stanley Cup and, well, crack open a few more cold ones with the boys…
THREE MORE YEARS! pic.twitter.com/drDzFLAMKC
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 1, 2017