Any conversation about the 2014-15 Oilers’ defence corps needs to start with a simple truth: Justin Schultz has been ordained as the team’s No. 1 defenceman, and the success or failure of the group is likely to hinge to a great extent on his success or failure in that role.
General manager Craig MacTavish isn’t the coach, but he is the primary architect of the hockey team and he talks to the coaching staff all the time. So when he talks about a player’s usage, it only makes sense to listen.
At his most recent press conference, the G.M. said that Schultz has “Norris Trophy potential”, disagreed emphatically with the perception that Schultz was a little weak on the defensive side of the game and said that his eyes and the analytics weren’t on the same side when it came to the player’s ability.
He also made it clear that he didn’t think Schultz was getting too many minutes.
“I suspect that Justin is going to camp [and] we’re all going to see a player playing at a different level,” he said in response to a question on that topic. “I think there’s going to be some significant improvement in him at training camp and I expect him to play every bit as much [as he did in 2013-14].”
MacTavish did allow that there were some role-specific areas (he mentioned the penalty kill) where Schultz might not be the best defenceman on the team, but he made it clear that under his watch the Oilers believe firmly in both Schultz’s potential and his ability in the present.
Under Dallas Eakins’ watch in 2013-14, Justin Schultz played a lot:
- 18:55 per game at evens, which ranked first on the Oilers and 27th overall in the NHL. It’s better than a minute per game more than No. 2 ranked Andrew Ference, who was Schultz’s regular defensive partner.
- 3:26 per game on the power play, which ranked first on the Oilers and 14th overall in the NHL. It’s a full minute per game more than No. 2 ranked Philip Larsen, who himself was more than a minute ahead of anyone else.
- 0:58 per game on the penalty kill. This figure was ninth on the team, behind not only most of the regulars but also back of part-timers like Corey Potter and Taylor Fedun.
That’s more-or-less what we should expect this season, too: first unit duty at evens and on the man advantage and spot work while shorthanded.
But it’s also important to recognize what kind of minutes Schultz played last season. Normally, it’s fair to assume that the guy who plays the most minutes is also drawing the toughest competition, but that just wasn’t true in Schultz’s case last year. Schultz ranked fourth of the Oilers’ four regular defenders in Quality of Competition and it’s instructive to compare the guys he saw most frequently against the players that fellow right-side defender Jeff Petry was facing:
One of those lists looks much more fearsome than the other, and it’s instructive to look at the players on each list from the same team. Petry drew Getzlaf and Perry; Schultz got Cogliano. Petry was matched against the Sedin line; Schultz got Kesler. Obviously, this wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule – both players share a lot of the same Coyotes names, for example – but there’s enough there to convey the pattern.
Schultz’s pairing played the most minutes, but most nights it was Petry’s unit taking on the opposition’s lions.
It’s important to note that this usage isn’t necessarily damning for Schultz. MacTavish has previously cited the Chicago Blackhawks as a team to emulate, and they do something similar – Duncan Keith hoovers up the minutes but the toughest assignments primarily go to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. That coaching decision doesn’t make Keith a weak defenceman; it just means that Joel Quenneville finds it in his team’s best interest to use Hjalmarsson as the shutdown specialist.
We’ll likely see the same thing again this season, though perhaps with a new partner. Schultz’s analytics ticked up dramatically last year when he was separated from regular partners Ference and Nick Schultz and united with Anton Belov, Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin – all big, strong defenders with puck-moving ability. Newcomer Nikita Nikitin is a similar player-type but with a lot more experience and a much bigger contract (which matters because it reflects the team’s belief in his abilities). I wonder too about Marincin, now that he has some games under his belt – they only played an hour together in 2013-14, but at the time Marincin was still pretty wet behind the ears.
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- 2014-15 goals projection series: Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Perron, Pouliot and Purcell, Yakupov, Arcobello and Draisaitl, Forward overview, Defence overview.
- Follow Jonathan Willis on Twitter