Justin Schultz is happy. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s a Stanley Cup champion. He’s been given an opportunity that wasn’t given to him in Edmonton. And most importantly, he’s employed by an organization that has embraced him and given him a chance to succeed. It shows. We’ve all been witness to the growth of this young defenseman, and every second of it has been a blast.
First off, I just have to tip my cap (yet again) to Jim Rutherford for landing Schultz at the trade deadline last year for a 3rd round pick. That wasn’t overpaying at all for, who many considered to be, an underachieving top defensive prospect. Schultz never turned into that player in Edmonton. Of course, it wasn’t a good situation there either. Schultz had a lot of pressure to perform on a bad team. Because he didn’t perform to expectations, he was considered a bust, or at least an underachiever. With an expiring contract, Edmonton decided to cut their losses and get something for him, so Rutherford bartered a 3rd round pick to bring the defenseman to Pittsburgh.
Mike Sullivan is good at a lot of things. He’s still a young coach, but there’s one thing he’s gotten really good at very quickly; learning his players. He saw where Schultz was last season. He knew what he was capable of and where he could best contribute. Like so many other players last season, he gave him the confidence to do his job AND go above and beyond.
We are seeing the growth of Schultz this season. After Jim Rutherford was able to re-sign Schultz to a friendly 1-year, $1.4 million contract for this season, Schultz has emphatically out-performed that value. He’s their second best defensemen right now, and that’s only because of how valuable Letang is to the defense, offense, break out, and power play. As of today, Schultz is 2nd in the NHL in plus-minus, a statistic a lot of people overlook (but yours truly still finds it valuable), at a +21. Technically, he’s a third pair defensemen, but he sure isn’t playing like one. He’s found great chemistry with linemate Ian Cole, and he finds the perfect blend of when to take risks and pinch in deep or be conservative and “stay home.” We are seeing him get better and better every game, and he’s become a force on all 200 feet of ice.
It’s not time to throw Schultz’s name in the Norris conversation, but it is time to realize that the Daley and Hagelin trades last year weren’t the only brilliant moves by the Pens GM. He also brought him back on a dime. I think it’s also time to look at giving this guy an extension, especially considering Marc-Andre Fleury’s contract more than likely won’t be paid by the Penguins next year.
Let’s take it for what it is. Schultz is playing really good hockey. He’s not top tier in the league yet. He’s still got some growing to do, but man, it’s fun watching him grow into a great hockey player. And he’s obviously having fun doing it.