Yesterday, Travis Yost posted an interesting article at TSN about Justin
Schultz and how involved he is as the shooter on grade “A” chances in the
attacking end of the ice. It goes to highlight just how odd this player is in one
aspect of his contributions. It also opens up the question of whether a
defenseman can be overly involved in the grade “A” scoring chances as the
First and foremost I implore everybody to read Yost’s post.
He is a bright contributor to TSN and main stream hockey analytics. To get down
to the meat and potatoes of the post, Justin Schultz was the shooter on 7.4% of
Edmonton’s grade “A” scoring chances over the course of the last few years. Grade “A”
chances are labelled thusly because they come from high danger areas that are relatively
close to the net. For a defensemen, that 7.4% is way ahead of the norm.
Justin Schultz was number one among NHL defenders by this
measure. The implication here is that Justin Schultz is shooting significantly
more from these up-close areas than his peers. Yost’s data shows that the next
closest defender was a little more than two percentage points less involved as
the shooter on those types of chances. That’s a huge difference given the low
percentages we’re discussing here. Additionally, the names we think of as elite
offensive defensemen aren’t necessarily alongside Justin at the top of the
This is where marrying what we see with what we record can
be so interesting. One of the biggest knocks on Schultz has been his inability
to shoot from the point. Instead he prefers to creep in down from the point to
take shots from shorter distances. In fact, in many cases him dropping from the
point to take exactly the kinds of shots that are recorded as grade “A” chances
appeared to be set plays. It’s not just that Schultz likes to jump in, but it
was heavily encouraged along the way.
But isn’t shooting from high danger areas a good thing?
Perhaps yes, and perhaps no, depending on how frequently
this is happening and who is taking the shots. As Yost notes in his article,
every time Justin Schultz takes one of those shots it’s a Grade A chance
that RNH, Hall, or Eberle isn’t the shooter for.
When we consider the traditional role of the offensive
defensemen, which is to distribute the puck up ice to the forwards as well as
provide offense from the blueline, we might wonder how Schultz’ usage and
contributions affect the offense when it becomes the forwards’ job to get the
puck to him so he can provide offense from well below the blueline.
One of the most common suggestions heard for Schultz is to
turn him into a forward. We can see here that in many respects he already is
one. He is certainly not contributing to Edmonton’s offense in what we might
consider a “normal” way, even for an offensive defender. That doesn’t make it
the “wrong” way, but it does open up a lot of questions. For example, does
Justin Schultz’ preference for being the attacker down low so frequently close
more opportunities to score than it opens? Does it open more chances against?
I don’t presume to have the answers but Yost’s article is
extremely fascinating. We know that the Oilers threw Schultz over the boards
excessively in his first few years as a pro. We know that he isn’t a shooter from
the blueline. And we know that he loves to creep in down low. But what are the
unintended consequences of having a defenseman so frequently be in this area?
We might expect to see Nugent-Hopkins cover the point significantly more than
his peers and find himself taken out of the offensive play as a result. I’m not
saying that’s exactly what was happening but we can ask the question.
Schultz is not a volume shooter. Last year he was 72nd
in shots per 60 minutes for defensemen with at least 1000 minutes played at
even strength. He had 90 shots at even strength in 2014-2015, which isn’t very close to the numbers elite offensive defensemen produce. In terms of individual scoring chances, Schultz had 68 and recorded 25 individual high danger scoring chances as per War-On-Ice. That means a little more than 36% of all his chances came from that middle-low slot area. That’s a significant amount of time spent away from the points.
Grade “A” chances are a good thing. We want the Oilers to create as
many of those as possible. Justin Schultz has an abnormally large amount of
these chances for a defender. Like Yost, I wrestle with whether or not what he’s
doing is helping or hurting the club just as many wrestle with trying to define
Justin Schultz as an offensive defenseman or the fourth forward on the
I am interested to see whether or not this trend continues under new head coach Todd McLellan. Is this oddity an asset the club can use or a symptom of a problematic offensive philosophy? We’ll wait and see how things start to shape up this fall.