The Edmonton Oilers won a hockey game for the first time in a dozen tries on Sunday night, and it was a game that had some interesting points. One of the most notable was Justin Schultz’s ice time; he played just 13:14 on the team’s third-pairing as head coach Dallas Eakins leaned heavily on his top two pairings.
The Ice Time
Justin Schultz’s TOI of 13:14 last night was a new career low … by nearly 2 full minutes. Old low of 15:13 was established < 2 weeks ago.
— Bruce McCurdy (@BruceMcCurdy) December 8, 2014
There isn’t much question that the shift in ice time reflects a change in the way the coach views the player. Yes, the Oilers were leading for a while and no there wasn’t a lot of power play ice time available, but even so it’s becoming clear that if Schultz is going to play like the third-best right-shooting option on the team than he’s going to get third-pairing ice time.
Also interesting is what happened after this:
Schultz had played 13 shifts prior to that goal, which almost exactly marked the halfway point of the game. He played just seven shifts afterward. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how the coaching staff saw that goal. Schultz shouldn’t get all the blame of course, but it’s an interesting exercise to count how many strides he took from the blue line to net. Schultz also ended up playing all of nine seconds in the final 8:46 of the third period.
This is what accountability looks like. Eakins gave Schultz a lot of rope to start the year, and kept playing him long after many fans had lost patience, but the kid gloves are off now. If Schultz can’t meet expectations, he’ll be scratched and he’ll be benched.
That One-Year Deal
Craig MacTavish said a lot of interesting things at the August press conference announcing Schultz’s new one-year deal, and while the line that most people remember is “Norris Trophy potential” there were some other comments that are worth revisiting now:
We had some discussions [on a long-term deal]. We had trouble agreeing on a number based on such a small sample size for Justin. Albeit he’s a bit older, he’s really only played 110, or 15 or 20 games in the league. We as an organization wanted a bit more information, fully aware that information can be expensive. He was very willing to provide us that information, and that’s what we’re going to see. He felt strongly that he’s going to hit it out of the park this year and we agree with him.
More information can turn out to be expensive, but due diligence can prevent a costly mistake. There are still two-thirds of the season to go, but so far the information the Oilers bought with that one-year contract suggests that Schultz isn’t the player that management thought he was.
I do think we’re at a low ebb in Schultz’s career at the moment; in that same presser MacTavish talked about peaks and valleys in a player’s development curve and it’s very true that very few players progress in a linear fashion. Even so, it’s a low ebb that does help illustrate the way the player has been overvalued by the team down the line.
The other comment that sticks out in hindsight is this one:
I suspect that Justin is going to camp [and] we’re all going to see a player playing at a different level. 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].
There are internal factors that go into player usage that are impossible for an outsider to see but that a savvy coach will take into account. One of those factors is management’s view of a player – a coach has a job to do, but ultimately he reports to the G.M. and if he isn’t playing a guy the G.M. likes it probably isn’t very good for that relationship. MacTavish has made no secret of how he feels about the player, and that’s probably one of the key reasons why it took so long for Schultz to play his way off the top pairing.
The right side of the Oilers’ defence corps could look quite a bit different on July 1 than it does right now. Schultz is an RFA this summer and his name has cropped up in trade rumours lately; Edmonton has to decide what to do with him and if they end up keeping him what kind of term and dollar value he deserves. The team also has to make a decision on another right-side defenceman, Jeff Petry, who is a pending UFA. Petry, incidentally, played 24:50 against San Jose.
In September, it seemed highly likely that Petry was going to be traded by this season’s deadline and that Schultz would be getting a shiny new long-term contract, one with a number boosted heavily by his work as the team’s No. 1 power play defenceman. Three months later, the future doesn’t seem nearly so certain.