Justin Schultz may be back, finally and the Pittsburgh Penguins are set to recoup the benefits. The Penguins defenseman joined the team two weeks ago as a full participant and began taking morning skates. The non-contact jersey which warns players to steer clear has been long gone as Schultz has been a full go at practice after returning from a fractured leg suffered on Oct. 13.
Friday afternoon, the team activated Schultz from the IR. However, the decision on when to play has rested more with Schultz and his feeling ready than it has with the training staff.
UPDATE: Schultz is in the lineup, Saturday.
The 28-year-old who signed a three-year $5.5 million contract last summer has been sorely missed on the Penguins blue line. The return date has been a mystery but it could be Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
“When I’m comfortable and confident I can go out there and make plays,” Schultz said on Monday.
And just how vital Schultz has become to the Penguins was never more evident than the first two-plus months of the season. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant Jacques Martin were forced to configure the Rubix Cube of healthy Penguins defensemen and figure out which of the four left-handed defensemen were better suited to playing the right side, and which pairings worked well.
To find the pairings which worked well, the coaches had to sift through several combinations which clearly didn’t work. Some really didn’t work. Those failed pairings were easy to spot, too. Olli Maatta with Jack Johnson and Olli Maatta with Jamie Oleksiak were generally painful to watch.
Maatta’s potentially regular-season ending shoulder injury has caused further shuffling. Johnson finally moved back to the left side, but with Juuso Riikola. Coaches were also sprinkling Johnson with Letang, Wednesday night and Chad Ruhwedel was the right side third pairing.
So there will be real and tangible benefits beyond simply getting the rightie and point producing Schultz back in the lineup.
1. Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson, the fanboy’s whipping post, is not great with pucks but he is noticeably limited when he is on his backhand. Of course, few defensemen are good on the backhand. Teams attacked Johnson at an angle, turned him to his backhand which forced him to make the escape-plays off the glass instead of crisp breakout passes.
The difference Wednesday night when Johnson was on the left of Juuso Riikola was immediately noticeable as Johnson fired head-man passes to center ice.
Fans howl at Johnson’s advanced stats–and they are rough–but the extenuating circumstances are undeniable.
Schultz’ return means that Johnson can permanently return to his natural left side and Riikola will eventually take the third pairing right side, though he appears to be a healthy scratch for Saturday as he worked as the extra defenseman, Friday.
Johnson’s statistics should also see an increase playing beside the offensively gifted Schultz (and Schultz should find confidence playing with a defenseman who rarely gets individually beaten).
2. Power Play Options
The Penguins power-play doesn’t have a consistent gear. They’re red hot or ice cold, and when they go cold, no team has given up more shorthanded goals. When the Penguins power play is scuffling or getting too cute, Schultz could see some shifts on the top unit, again. He may even see shifts with Kris Letang as the Penguins have toyed with a two-defensemen look.
Schultz did a fair amount of top-PP quarterbacking last season before he gave way to Letang. Schultz moves the puck quickly and likes to keep the power play moving. More puck movement equals less individual play and makes it more difficult for aggressive PK’s to pressure.
This could get Phil Kessel’s feet moving in the circle if Schultz swaps into the top unit or it could remove Kessel if Schultz becomes the second point-position.
3. Offensive push from the back side.
The Penguins coaches are still pushing players to hang onto the puck longer, play in the low zone, and force opponents to battle. That gritty game opens up the low-to-high plays but for three months, only Kris Letang has been able to contribute.
The Penguins sorely need a bomber at the blue line to step to the top of the circles and let it rip. Schultz shot is heavy. The boom off the goalie’s pads echoes through the arena.
Given the Penguins newfound speed with Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger and the Penguins physical battlers like Patric Hornqvist and Zach Aston-Reese, even the Penguins coaches might yell, “Shooot!”
In addition to filling the top of the zone with a presence and the air with shots, Shultz is also able to carry the puck, which is another area the Penguins have been lacking. A defenseman with speed through the neutral zone will force opponents to back in or leave someone uncovered. Either way, the Penguins controlled zone entries should improve.
Simple plays become even simpler when the opponent must guard against more options.
And Schultz becomes that additional option.