The Pittsburgh Penguins handed out a huge deal to Justin Schultz in the off-season, and they didn’t have much of a choice.
Schultz became the Pittsburgh Penguins poor-man’s Kris Letang when the superstar defender went down with injury – and he did a pretty good job at it.
His point production at 5v5 is what you’d expect from a #2 defender – not 2nd pair, a #2. Where he falls down into the second pair category is shot suppression, but that shouldn’t come as shock given the style of play and common linemates.
Schultz spent most of his time at even strength carrying Ian Cole in possession. Together, Schultz and Cole had 50.9% of the shot attempts go their way. Separated, the story is different. Schultz away was 51.8% and Cole away was 47.4%.
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If a Cole-Schultz pairing continues in 2017-2018 then we won’t be able to expect much more than what we saw last year from the newly-minted $5.5M man. There are better options, of course.
Both Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta provided a more controlling pair with Schultz – and required Schultz do less heavy lifting – at 5v5. Consequently, those two also pair well with the top pair right shot Letang.
Those are obviously your top four defenders for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Cole’s frequency with Schultz last year does pose a threat of disruption.
Ideally, he gets Maatta and we can watch more possession dominance. Remember, more shots in the opposition’s direction means less time in the Penguins zone. It’s a win.
Back to the Numbers
Getting back to the numbers for Schultz.
There were 169 defenders who played at least 750 minutes at 5v5 last year. Schultz ranked first in GF/60 with a ridiculous 3.26 and 32nd in CF/60. He generates chances and gets results. Like I said before, shot suppression needs work but I’d wager that becomes a better statistic for Schultz with a different majority partner.
The hardest thing to predict is shot percentage, and Schultz had a significantly higher shot percentage last year than he did the previous three years. That said, he had an even higher shot percentage during his first two years in the league. Yeah, it’s a crap-shoot. It’s hard for a defender to maintain a high shooting percentage, though, so take that with a grain of salt.
Schultz seemed to be more comfortable in the NHL last year, and thriving in a system designed for his style of play. I can’t imagine his 5v5 P/60 of 1.06 drops off and it might even enjoy a small uptick with the right people on the ice.
A healthy Kris Letang means less powerplay time for Schultz, a statistic he led the team in, which will also translate to a lower point total overall. So if you’re looking for another 51 point performance, well, you’ll probably be disappointed.
I think a fair goal is in the 40-45 point range for Schultz given his talent and ability to move the puck in a positive direction. His 51 points in 2016-2017 made him the 7th highest scoring defender in the league. To repeat that is a big ask.
His contract pays him what he’s currently worth. That’s a second pairing role. Times are changing and the cap is going up. A deal worth $5.5M per year is second pairing money these days. It’s on the high end but still second pairing.
So, being realistic with Schultz, I think we’re looking at 40-45 points as a ceiling. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. He’s proven to be a big piece of the back-to-back puzzle for the Penguins and will certainly be a big piece of the three-peat. The Penguins defensive group isn’t as thin as some suggest – providing they remain healthy.