Nine games into the 2013 NHL season, no player on the Oilers roster has been trusted to play more minutes than rookie rearguard Justin Schultz’s 23:09 per night.
Schultz leads the Edmonton blue line in ice-time at even-strength (17:45, more than a minute more per game than second-ranked Jeff Petry) and on the power play (4:18, roughly 30 seconds more per game than Ryan Whitney). Schultz is also averaging more than a minute per game on the penalty kill.
That Schultz has emerged as the Oilers’ top offensive option is not surprising – the team’s only real threat on the back end other than Schultz is Ryan Whitney, and he has been a shadow of the player he was before ankle injuries robbed him of his mobility. More than that, Schultz is uniquely gifted – as evidenced by his neck-and-neck race with Jordan Eberle for the AHL scoring lead during the lockout, a race that left every other player in the league in their dust. While for years the hallmark of an Oilers’ offensive defender has been a booming point shot on the power play, Schultz is a different sort of attacker – one who relies on his speed, passing, and above all a willingness to pinch in an unleash his hard and accurate wrist shot.
But if Schultz’s offensive prominence isn’t surprising, his overall lead in ice-time is. It’s also been a god-send for the Oilers, who have seen last year’s top pairing (Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry) struggle in the early going, albeit while playing tough minutes. The third pairing, playing far more sheltered minutes, has also made its share of errors. This is evident both by eye and by number.
The following chart shows the current group of seven ranked by a number of statistical measures:
CorsiRel: Shot attempts for and against (Corsi) while a player is on the ice 5-on-5 per 60 minutes of play, adjusted for strength of team. ZS: Zone starts – the percentage of non-neutral zone shifts each player started in the offensive zone in 5-on-5 situations. SC Cont.: Even-strength scoring chances each player has contributed to or been at fault on per 60 minutes. Shots +/-: The average shots for minus against over 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time. Scoring chances data via David Staples; all other data from behindthenet.ca.
The pairing of Schultz and Schultz excels regardless of measure. They’ve been given the most favourable zonestarts on the team – sensibly so, given the younger Schultz’s exceptional offensive ability – but they haven’t been given butter-soft positional minutes and they certainly haven’t faced sub-par opposition. Yet they’re well ahead by shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances. (Side point: the fact that the Oilers are starting far more often in their own end than in the offensive zone says unkind things about their 5-on-5 territorial game to this point in the season).
Schultz isn’t a perfect player, and he’s certain to have lapses now and again. But so far, he’s shown himself to be the best option for the top job on Edmonton’s blue line – and that’s far more than anyone could have expected so quickly when he signed with the team in the summer.