Last season, Justin Schultz wasn’t too high on himself.
The former college hockey standout with the Wisconsin Badgers was having the worst season of his career with a very upset Oilers franchise. Garnering high expectations ever since his inception with the Oilers, Justin was simply not living up to be the potential Norris-winning defenseman that the team envisioned him to become. Fed up with the slumping defenseman, who had only 10 points in 45 games, the Oilers shipped the failed Schultz to Pittsburgh for a mere third-round pick.
Without the pressure of playing top minutes and being the top defenseman, Schultz slid into a bottom-pairing defensive role for the Penguins. With Trevor Daley getting hurt in the Eastern Conference Finals, Schultz replaced the veteran defenseman enroute to the team winning their fourth Stanley Cup.
A Comeback Season to Remember
After testing the free agency water, Schultz finally decided to resign with the Penguins for one year at $1.4 million. The contract, at the time, seemed fair for both sides; however, the Penguins are the ones benefitting from that contract now.
Schultz has been absolutely terrific for the Penguins. Pairing up with Ian Cole, the former Badger finally had a breakthrough season. Schultz recorded 12 goals and 51 points in 78 games this regular season with the Penguins, which was good for 7th among NHL defenseman this season. Schultz also found his overall game to be enhanced, and with credit to Penguins defensive development coach and former player Sergei Gonchar, the 26 year old defenseman has become much better at playing away from the puck.
Meriting mention of an all-star appearance, Schultz made a complete turnaround from last season. With his improved play, Schultz has seen an increased role with the Penguins. With Kris Letang set to miss the entire playoffs, however, Schultz is going to have to fulfill a much-needed role for the Penguins.
The Hero They Need
Kris Letang will never be replaced. Earning Norris Trophy (best defenseman) and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) consideration at the fruition of last season, Letang was crucial to the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup. Even though Letang is gone, however, Schultz can help with one role that Letang played.
What the Penguins have missed the most from Letang is his ability to lead the rush, practically by himself. With generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing together, this team needs players that can get the puck up the ice to them. Out of all of the defenseman the Penguins
What the Penguins need from Schultz is what he’s done so far in Letang’s absence: lead the rush. Cole has complemented Schultz very well this season and has been his pseudo-defensive backbone; giving Schultz more freedom to join the rush. With Cole behind him as a defensive backup, Schultz has found himself deeper in the offensive zone and has since an elevation in scoring because of it.
Schultz has shown this year that not only is he gifted offensively, but he is decent at playing away from the puck as well. Schultz isn’t going to be the team’s shutdown defenseman. There are other guys that can do that, such as Cole, Brian Dumoulin, and Ron Hainsey.
Finding Faith in the Former Badger
Kris Letang played 41 games; missing exactly half of the Penguins regular season. In his absence, Just Schultz has propelled himself into a top role. Quarterbacking the team’s top power play, Schultz has already shown his value to the Penguins.
If Schultz can lead the rush and help develop scoring chances, the single thing that Kris Letang did best, then the Penguins will score more goals. Period. The Penguins don’t need Schultz to play like the Norris Trophy defenseman the Oilers thought they had. The team simply needs the former Badger to lead the rush and provide scoring chances.
Schultz was once considered to be a failure. After only a few months of being a Penguin, he turned into a Stanley Cup champion. If he wants to remain a champion for another year, then he will need to be the player that his team needs. He won’t be Kris Letang, but he can still provide a much-needed role for this team.