“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day,
a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere
behind the morning.”
-- J. B. Priestley
From time to time, there are players who come along in the NHL who show just enough to be a tease, offering a glimpse of what might be an exceptional career, who have a “breakout” season only to find that they did not have it in them to sustain a high level of performance. Justin Schultz might be one of those players.
Schultz was taken by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the 2008 draft but never suited up for them, unable to reach a contract agreement with the club and ultimately catching on with the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent in July 2012. Schultz had a fine rookie season with the Oilers in 2012-2013, dressing for all 48 games of the abbreviated season, posting a scoring line of 8-19-27, and finishing seventh in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year (note: Caps defenseman Brenden Dillion finished tenth in voting for the Calder in that season while with the Dallas Stars). When he went 11-22-33 in 74 games in his sophomore season, his future looked bright. He slipped a bit the following year (6-25-31 in 81 games in 2014-2015), and then his production fell significantly to open the 2015-2016 season (3-7-10 in 45 games).
With the Oilers in selling mode at the trading deadline, they shipped Schultz to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round pick in the 2016 Entry Draft. Schultz put up modest numbers with the Pens (1-7-8 in 18 games, averaging a bit over 14 minutes a game, , his lowest average as an NHL’er) and did not stand out in the Pens’ Stanley Cup run that season (0-4-4 in 15 games). But the following season he had what might have been a breakout year at age 26 – 12-39-51, plus-27, in 78 games averaging more than 20 minutes a game.
However, Schultz’ production was halved the next season (4-23-27 in 63 games) and halved again in 2018-2019 (2-13-15 in 29 games, a season in which he lost 53 games to a leg fracture). Schultz returned from injury to go 3-9-12 in 46 games with the Pens last season, another season in which he lost a chun of games to injury, but he seemed stuck with disappointing production.
It became apparent Schultz was not in the Penguins’ plans going forward, and he was signed by the Caps to a two-year/$8.0 million deal last October.
Odd Schultz Fact… Justin Schultz was taken in the second round of the 2008 Entry Draft (43rd overall), the last of a four-defenseman string of players taken. That string started with Aaron Ness (40th overall), who was taken by the New York Islanders, but who would play in 18 games for the Caps over three seasons.
Odd Schutz Fact II… Justin Schultz is the only player in University of Wisconsin history to win Defense Player of the Year award in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association twice.
Fearless’ Take…For his ups and downs, Justin Schultz has put together some respectable numbers on the offensive side f the puck. Since he entered the league in 2012-2013, he ranks 41st of 186 active defensemen in points per game (0.44), more than defensemen such as Matt Niskanen (0.43), Jacob Trouba (0.43), Tyler Myers (0.37), and Zdeno Chara (0.36; minimum 250 games played). He is also tied for 24th among that group of active defensemen in power play points (89, with Brent Seabrook) over that span.
So, Justin Schultz went 12-39-51 in 78 games in 2016-2017 and won a Stanley Cup. Then, over his last three seasons with the Penguins, he went 9-45-54 in 138 games and didn’t win anything, except perhaps some grumbling from Penguin fans. His playoff performance was a little better over that same period on a per-game basis, but it did fall off slightly. He was 4-9-13 in 21 playoff games in 2016-2017, but he was a combined 2-10-12 in 20 games over the next three postseasons.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:
- 500 career NHL games (he currently has 482)
The Big Question… Can Justin Schultz rediscover his game in new surroundings?
Signing Justin Schultz to a two-year/$8 million contract is not a “low-risk/high-reward” sort of gamble. He is another of that intermediate group of defensemen in a salary cap range of $3.5 to $4.5 million. He carries the third-highest cap hit among Washington defensemen, behind John Carlson ($8.0 million) and Dmitry Orlov ($5.1 million). He is here with an expectation of being a second-pair defenseman who can log some power play minutes (he has averaged more than two minutes of power play ice time per game in each of his eight seasons). But his performance on a year-to-year basis has been uneven. He had a good beginning in Edmonton in his first two seasons, tailed off, got a spark once more in his first full season in Pittsburgh, and then tailed off again. He brings that inconsistency in performance along with some injuries in his baggage, but joining his fourth NHL franchise, perhaps he can find that spark one more time.
In the end…
Justin Schultz is a defenseman with skill, particularly on the offensive side of the puck, but realizing his potential given his skill set has been a challenge from year to year. He is likely to have a reasonably well-defined role in Washington, getting second pair minutes at even strength and the occasional turn on the power play (depending on whether head coach Peter Laviolette chooses to use Dmitry Orlov as a second-team power play defenseman). Perhaps a well-defined role will allow Schultz to find the magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.
Projection: 48 games, 3-12-15, even