Pittsburgh Penguins right-side defenseman Justin Schultz is both a necessary piece of the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line and one who may not be around beyond this coming season. While the Penguins have openly named goaltender Matt Murray and his contract beyond this season as an eventual priority, the team has left Schultz to twist in the wind with his upcoming performance as the determining factor of his future with the team.
No pressure, eh?
Schultz vaulted from being an epic bust in Edmonton to a dynamic second pair right d-man with the Penguins in 2016-17. Schultz soared to 51 points (12g, 39a) and carried the primary offensive responsibility after top defenseman Kris Letang suffered a season-ending neck injury in February. Fortunately for the Penguins, Schultz was already well on his way to a career year.
The outburst earned Schultz a three-year, $5.5 million annual value contract. The two years since the ink dried on the agreement have not yet equaled the breakout. Not even combined has Schultz surpassed his coming out party.
In the past two seasons, Schultz has scored only 42 points (6g, 36a) in 82 total games. Of course, was limited to only 29 games last season after breaking his leg just four games into the season. He slumped in 2017-18 with only 27 points (4g, 23a) and admitted the frustration fairy paid frequent visits (he didn’t actually mention the fairy, but he did cop to frustration).
He did score 15 points (2g, 13a) last season, which extrapolated throughout a full season, that is roughly a 40-point pace.
Schultz’ is the Penguins second-best puck mover, second-best offensive defenseman, easily the second-best right-side defenseman, and fittingly the second-highest paid defenseman.
But is Schultz worth more years at more money?
The Pittsburgh Penguins Decision
The flat salary cap is the first impediment to another Schultz contract. Teams expected the salary cap to be $83 million this season, but the league and NHLPA saddled teams with an $81.5 cap. The resulting scramble for space which resulted in the league-wide gridlock. Unrestricted free agent offensive defensemen Jake Gardiner formerly (and maybe future of) the Toronto Maple Leafs and restricted free agent defenseman Boston Bruin Charlier McAvoy are unsigned.
Like Schultz, Gardiner is 29-years-old and has a recent 50-point season in the rearview mirror. There just isn’t enough cash to go around and second-best players are getting squeezed.
The Penguins are technically over the cap and pending a trade which could clear significant salary or series of cash-crunching moves, will enter the season near the salary cap limit. Next summer, Matt Murray will be an RFA. So too will Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun and Dominik Simon. Alex Galchenyuk will be a UFA, and the Penguins will have about $20 million to spend.
Murray, McCann, and Galchenyuk or a top-six winger will take most of that $20 million in the piggy bank, especially if the Penguins need to hit the market for a scoring winger.
Like Malcolm, Stealers Wheel, Sue Heck and Jan Brady, Schultz is stuck in the middle.
All of this Schultz situational analysis without predicting Jack Johnson will cause the next recession, collude with Russians, or melt the polar ice caps. I’ll apologize to the blogosphere on Twitter next week.
Prediction: The 51-point season is a highwater mark. Whether the Penguins choose Johnson’s defensive acumen to balance Schultz on the left, or roll with Marcus Pettersson for dual-puck movers, Schultz will still run the second PP unit. He will rack up 12-15 points that way.
The Penguins subdued offensive prowess will depress Schultz’ final total, regardless of his partner. A 40-point season with the same improved defensive zone play he displayed over the past two seasons, would be more valuable than another 50-point season with poor defensive zone coverage.
Schultz’ broken leg hindered him after his return last season. He returned in February but looked weaker and overpowered in the Round One sweep by the New York Islanders. Part of his contractability will be his adequacy in his own zone. He doesn’t have to be great but competent.
38 points. Eight goals. 30 assists. +6.