It’s playoff time and a big concern that’s been looming all season for the Pittsburgh Penguins is the injury of number one defenceman Kris Letang.
The Kris Letang injury which occurred earlier in the season left the Pittsburgh Penguins worried about their season’s future. It’s really difficult to fill a top four defenceman spot, let alone a number one defenceman. Many critics and fans questioned if the Penguins will be as effective without Letang.
Nevertheless, the Penguins have been able to succeed effectively without Letang, finishing second in the entire league by the end of the season. This is a lot in part due to the strong play of Justin Schultz, who has presumed the number one role in replacement of Letang.
His Best Season Yet
Let’s get this out of the way first. Justin Schultz is having his best season yet. We can easily look at his numbers and prove this, but one could even tell this is a fact simply by watching him play.
Schultz seems to be playing a bigger game. He is also much better offensively, and he often tries to get more involved in plays. Perhaps this is because Letang’s absence has given Schultz extra minutes to boost his play, but either way he has stepped up big time this season at crucial times.
Like I said, Schultz is having his best season yet, especially when it comes to his numbers. In 78 games this season, Schultz put up 12 goals and 39 assists for 51 points. Before this season, his career best in points was 33 in the 2013-14 NHL season with the Edmonton Oilers.
An increase like this is exactly what the Penguins need at these desperate times. Schultz has shown he can fill in for that number one spot when needed. Although his numbers may not be as great as Letang’s, it’s easy to see he has been making significant efforts at excelling in the new role he has been given.
To end the season, Schultz led the entire Penguins roster in +/- with a +27 record. He also led the team in average time on ice with 20:27. It’s easy to see that Schultz has not only been filling this number one role, but he has been excelling at it efficiently.
Figuring out the Pairings
Let’s take in account just how badly bruised the Pittsburgh Penguins really are. On their blue line, they are missing Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. This forces the Penguins to shuffle around their defensive pairings quite a bit.
As a result, Justin Schultz has been spending a majority of his playing time being paired with with Brian Dumoulin as the team’s first pairing. In Game 1 on Wednesday night, we saw him being paired with Ian Cole. In both pairings he has been able to excel quite impressively.
Schultz’ flexibility in defensive partners is ultimately what helps him in his case as a number one defenceman. No matter who he has played with this season, he has been able to play solidly and efficiently.
Justin Schultz’ big play has made the Penguins almost forget about the fact that Kris Letang is injured. With Schultz playing the way he has, there is no doubt in my mind that the Penguins defensive core will still nearly be as effective as last year.