I’m not sure anyone’s ever done a proper study, but anecdotally it seems like players that come through the college system seem to slow down somewhere around the 40-game mark early in their professional careers.
Justin Schultz has now played in 52 contests, and he’s in a bit of a slump.
Schultz in the AHL
Justin Schultz was a special player in the AHL during the lockout, rivaling Jordan Eberle for the (league!) scoring lead. In 34 games he scored 18 goals and added 30 assists, good for 48 points. Those would be impressive totals in the AHL at any time, but for a rookie professional during a lockout they were almost unbelievable.
That’s obvious when comparing Schultz’s totals to those of other defenders:
Basically, in terms of points, there was Justin Schultz, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and guys who scored half as much as Justin Schultz. If Schultz had come in around Jake Gardiner territory, I would have been very impressed. If he’d come in near Slava Voynov and Nick Leddy, I’d have been fine with his offensive production. Instead, he laid waste to the league – Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson called him the best player in the AHL, and for good reason.
Schultz in the NHL
Initially, Schultz was as impressive in the NHL as he was in the AHL. He stepped into the Oilers’ lineup and almost instantly assumed the role of number one defenceman, another jaw-dropping achievement for a rookie, even on a team like Edmonton with a relatively weak blue line. More than that, he excelled in the role – picking up points, and staying ahead of the curve in things like shots metrics and scoring chances.
The coaching staff embraced him – Schultz has played 20+ minutes in 16 of 18 games, has topped 25 minutes four times, and averages 22:40 per game, the top total on the team. He’s also the team’s most-used even-strength defencemen, playing 17:34 a night.
But Schultz hasn’t been as effective of late as he was early in the year, both by eye and by number:
Superficially, the scoring totals are identical – two goals, three assists, five points. But digging a little deeper, Schultz has dropped from plus-1 to minus-7 and seen his shot totals cut nearly in half. Scoring chances are also going the wrong way – over the first nine games, with Schultz on the ice the Oilers were in the black; over the last nine they’ve been out-chanced roughly 3-to-2.
It’s possible that playing heavy minutes over more games in a shorter timeframe than Schultz is used to has worn him down somewhat. By all accounts, that’s one of the most difficult parts of making the jump to the pro ranks from college hockey. Additionally, Schultz has never had much of a respite – in Oklahoma, Todd Nelson leaned on him heavily and hasn’t taken long for Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger to take the same approach.
On the other hand, it’s still early in the NHL season. Every player has up and downs over the course of the year – even the most seasoned professionals are less than perfectly consistent. It could well just be that the last nine games represent a brief cold streak, and that Schultz will come out of it soon enough.