Two seasons ago, Justin Schultz had his breakout year. Finally. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman popped 51 points including 39 assists in a torrid run which began in November of the 2016-17 season. Schultz also became the de facto lead defenseman when Kris Letang was lost for the season due to a neck injury. Justin Schultz had arrived.
Or did he?
The Penguins defenseman has not repeated his breakout year despite an expensive three-year, $16.5 million contract extension with the Penguins, which is open for renewal on July 1 and expires next year. The Penguins dished Schultz a payday with a short “show us what you can do” term. And so another decision on Schultz is forthcoming.
Schultz was one of the few players to push harder in the Round One loss to the New York Islanders. When the Penguins scrambled and begged for offense Schultz pinched, and pressured in the offensive zone. He had three points (1g, 2a) in four games and no giveaways.
Conversely, top defenseman Kris Letang had just one assist in the series.
That is the Justin Schultz who will get a sizeable paycheck. And the Penguins need more of that version, too.
It’s been a long road with big expectations and paydays for the Kelowna, BC native who was selected by Anaheim Ducks with the 43rd pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. However, Schultz played three years of college hockey at Wisconsin after three seasons of junior hockey in the BCHL, a second tier junior league. Schultz declined to sign with Anaheim was rewarded with a hefty free-agent deal with the Edmonton Oilers.
Schultz originally signed a two-year deal for $7.55 million. Then a trio of one-year deals, but the third of those contracts was a steep pay drop from $3.9 million to $1.4 million. The bloom had come off Schultz’ rose and the internet fans were less than kind. Ok, they were downright brutal.
Schultz w tabbed the worst defenseman in the league. Through 45 games in 2015-16, Schultz posted only 10 points for Edmonton. His confidence was gone and the goals against were piling up as Edmonton shoehorned him into the top defenseman role on a bad team.
That season, the Penguins rescued Schultz for the mere cost of a third-round pick.
But after Schultz’ breakout in 2016-17 which culminated in the Penguins second consecutive Stanley Cup and the new three-year deal, Schultz has not been a game-changing performer.
Last season, Schultz scored just 27 points including only four goals. He admitted to PHN, he got frustrated, “when the puck just won’t go in.”
This season, bad luck used its billy club on Schultz who broke his leg in just the fourth regular season game. He returned in February but it’s a legitimate question when or if he was ever at full pace. Schultz scored 15 points in 29 games, which is a healthy number but his impact was less than his production.
As the Penguins second highest paid defenseman, the team needs more from Schultz. So what comes next for the defenseman who will turn 29 on July 6?
Schultz begins most of his shifts in the offensive zone; generally about 56%. He is probably best suited as a lower pairing right side defender who bolsters a power play or second unit power play. Schultz amassed six power play points among his 15 points in 29 games. The jury is out if he is suited for 20 or more minutes per game against high-quality lines. He isn’t physical but he does take care of the puck better than all other Penguins defenders. He had only 27 turnovers in 63 games last season which makes him a unicorn on the Penguins blue line.
His 27 giveaways in 29 games this season are a low water mark which were a byproduct of getting healthy and a couple of forwards who didn’t like to help.
To maintain his well-paid status, he must be on the plus side of the ledger. He can’t produce just 27 points in 63 games. As internet heat scorches the low hanging fruit like Erik Gudbranson, Olli Maatta and Jack Johnson, one legitimate decision to watch will be on Justin Schultz. Will the Penguins quietly seek to bolster the offense on their second pairing with a stronger, more consistent offensive defenseman?
Schultz has shown the flashes to be that player worth second pair minutes and $5.5 million. He has had equal or longer stretches that he is a back pair defenseman who benefits from protection and is capable of hot streaks.
The Penguins do not need to make any decisions on Schultz in the immediate. They have the luxury of waiting well into next season to make a decision but at $5.5 million, Schultz is a touch overpaid for his recent performance. His mistakes are small, but he is an offensive defenseman and can atone for errors with more points for the Penguins than against.
Schultz will have the biggest say in the decision. At 29-years-old, we’ve seen what Schultz has to offer. He’s probably worth something closer to $4-$5 million per season on a multi-year deal unless he is able to duplicate that 51-point performance, in which case the Penguins may not be able to afford him.
The drama of contract years.