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Thornberry: Penguins Justin Schultz Project Looks for Rebound

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Justin Schultz celebrates with Phil Kessel: Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

From the moment that the Penguins signed defenseman Jack Johnson, supporters of the deal pointed to Justin Schultz as a similar project which produced successful results. Yes, the transformation has been one of the more striking ones in recent memory, but after two plus seasons, Schultz is still a work in progress.

The early minutes of the Penguins’ preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings showed us a classic example of Schultz play: several ill-advised passes that led to turnovers, followed by some offensive flash and a blistering shot on goal.

This is not to imply that Schultz is a bad player, but the 2017-18 season did seem to be a year of some regression for the 28-year old. After putting up 12 goals and 51 points in 2016-17, he only notched four goals and 27 points during the last campaign, albeit in 15 fewer games. Schultz admitted the lack of goals last season bothered him.

Last season, his possession numbers (49.75 Corsi For %) were second to last among regular defenders for the Penguins, being only slightly better than Matt Hunwick. Those woes continued during the playoffs, going uncontested at the bottom of the blueliners (47.42 CF%).

Finding Unrealized Potential

Schultz has been one of the biggest NHL success stories in recent years, having been all but written off as a bust in Edmonton. After Schultz reformed his game with help from Penguins’ assistant coaches Jacques Martin and Sergei Gonchar, many considered him to have turned into one of the better defenders in the league.

He has shown that he can be a force at both ends of the ice, and arguably Pittsburgh’s best, most complete defensemen, but that praise comes with a caveat. The 2016-17 season was his best in the league, but much of his playtime consisted of sheltered minutes which began in the offensive zone. Most of the high-pressure shifts went to other defensemen with a history of good defensive work and experience in critical situations (Brian Dumoulin, Kris Letang, Ron Hainsey).

Acquiring Schultz for a third-round pick was an absolute steal for general manager Jim Rutherford. He has shown the capability to be an elite blueliner, and it is very unfair to judge a player for a brief period in a preseason game. But it shows that there are parts of his game that are still a concern. He is capable of great things and prone to mistakes. The same mistakes that social media piles on Kris Letang for. If Letang had made the turnovers Sunday that Schultz did, Penguins’ Twitter would be absolutely ablaze with calls for an immediate trade to a team located in the far reaches of Siberia.

Expect More From Schultz in 2018-19

Like most of his teammates, Schultz will benefit from the extra rest that comes with not winning the Stanley Cup. Like everyone else, Schultz will benefit from time to physically and mentally recover. Schultz’ 51 points may have been a career year, and we may not see another stat line close to 2016-17, but he will likely improve upon his 27 points from last season.

Advanced statistics are valuable tools, but alone they cannot be relied upon to show the entire picture. A glance at only the ‘fancy stats’ tell a story of the Penguins’ worst defender, but any logical person who watched the actual games know that this is not the case. Schultz is a talented hockey player, and on some nights he is the best defender wearing black and gold. But the full story tells us that there is still room for improvement. He is capable of reaching an elite level, but keeping him there is where the project continues.

A few months from now we will likely hear a similar discussion about Johnson, and if the results are half as good, it will be money well spent.

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gerald gilbert
gerald gilbert
4 years ago

Schultz is a very good player but he put the 51 points up in a season where Letang missed 41 regular season games. Schultz benefited from more PP time and favorable offensive starts because of Letang’s absence. The important point is he can do it again if needed.