Justin Schultz is only 24 years old and has just 148 games on his NHL resume, so it can be argued by those leaning heavily on hope and faith, like, say, Edmonton Oilers’ GM Craig MacTavish, it’s a little bit early to state with absolute certainty Schultz will never develop into an elite defenseman.
There is, of course, growing evidence there’s reasonable doubt Schultz will ever round out his game enough to be a trustworthy top-four NHL blue liner, let alone a Norris Trophy candidate, to flog the well-worn and unfounded praise MacTavish heaped on him last summer upon getting the ink done on a one-year contract extension.
The latest exhibit of that came when Dallas Eakins stapled Schultz to the pine after he blew defensive coverage in front of the net – we’ve seen that movie before — on a goal by Ty McGinn in a 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at Rexall Place Sunday. That bit of Jultzing, as it’s come to be known, came on the heels of a feeble defensive play along the boards in an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
What if Schultz, deemed by many to be the puck-mover and power play specialist the Oilers so badly needed when he hit free agency amid great fanfare after refusing to sign with Anaheim, doesn’t even live up to that billing, let alone the goofy Norris jibber-jabber?
The Oilers have yet another hole to fill, that’s what.
CHUCK NORRIS TROPHY?
Given the many holes in Schultz’s game – his history of ill-timed rushes up the ice and his documented disinterest in doing much of anything in his own end of the rink — MacTavish set the bar impossibly high after the Oilers and agent Wade Arnott agreed on a one-year bridge deal worth $3.675 million in August. Gushed MacTavish:
“Untapped potential, incredible potential of this player. I feel like Justin is going to be a great player and a great Oiler. What we wanted to do as an organization is buy ourselves a little bit of time to give ourselves a chance to negotiate a long-term deal.”
MacTavish continued: “I disagree with the perception that he’s weaker on the defensive side of things. He showed me at the end of last year that he was managing the decisions on when to go, when to probe offensively, when to get back.”
And the money quote: “I know he’s going to be a player that can be counted on in both ends. I think that Justin has Norris Trophy potential and I don’t think there are too many people who disagree with me in that regard… What Justin brings, everybody’s looking for, and we’re thankful we have him.”
JUST A BIT OUTSIDE
Of course, MacTavish is prone to hyperbole from time to time – he once spoke of Marty Reasoner as being like Joe Sakic, without the speed. Schultz isn’t to be blamed for the boss getting carried away, perhaps trying to justify a rather pricey look-see bridge deal. Let’s put all that aside.
The selling point, the “upside” on Schultz, has always been his ability to move the puck and create offense. With seasons of 47 and 44 points in his final two seasons with Wisconsin, the Oilers knew full well they weren’t getting a defensive dynamo when they won the free agent sweepstakes.
Schultz isn’t big. He isn’t tough. He doesn’t bang. He doesn’t fight. He has never proven to be effective defensively. Teams can and do look the other way on all of that if there’s a pay-off offensively. The hope is the player will at least become adequate in his own end. If that happens, it’s all good.
That hasn’t happened. Schultz produced 8-19-27 in 48 games (.56 PPG) in his rookie season, 2012-13, averaging 21:27 in ice time. Mistakes and all, he finished seventh in voting for the Calder Trophy. Schultz put up 11-22-33 in 74 games (.45 PPG) last season, averaging 23:21 in ice time. Through the 26 games he’s played this season, Schultz has scored 2-9-11 (.42 PPG) and he’s averaging 21:27. He’s slipping offensively. The flaws remain.
IS THERE A PAY-OFF?
Schultz, already healthy scratched by Eakins for a “re-set,” rode the plank after spending more time paying attention to Leon Draisaitl in the slot than McGinn on the San Jose goal. He played just 13:14 against the Sharks. It looks from where I sit like Eakins is finally growing weary of the mistakes.
Might Schultz respond by putting in the time and effort it’ll take to round out his game, to become at least adequate defensively? Sure, he might. There is time, as we said off the top. If he doesn’t? If Schultz can’t be trusted to play top-four minutes in the long term, if he remains a defensive liability and his production slides, then what?
It wasn’t that long ago some people were willing to roll the dice on Schultz, defensive warts and all. “Give him five years at $4-$5 million a year. The price will only go up.” Take a look through the comments at this site and others. Does that seem like a good bet today? Do you see Schultz as the puck-mover and back-end power play catalyst the Oilers should invest in?
I think not.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.