At this point in his NHL career, Justin Schultz is something of a reclamation project. He’s struggled badly at times at even-strength, burned through several different partners and even his offensive game has been criticized as the Oilers’ power play has faltered.
He’s still an important player, though. Edmonton could really use a young defenceman with a right shot and offensive skill to play big minutes this year and for most of the next decade. Can Schultz become that player, or will the Oilers have to go out and find someone else to fill the role?
A big chunk of Edmonton coach Todd McLellan’s media availability yesterday was taken up discussion Schultz, which isn’t a surprise after an impressive showing from the defenceman in preseason play on Wednesday night. Asked what he thought of the player, McLellan made a number of points:
Fit, numbers way up from where they were last year. Strong, and that doesn’t mean fit; strong mentally and confident. Open, willing to learn and asking questions. It looked like he had good legs last night, a little bit of jump in his stride. Still learning how we want to play and learning some concepts. He’s got a dynamic skillset that we’re starting to see, so a lot of really positive things. He, like the rest of us, the coaching staff and the players, all still have to find our game and polish it up a little bit before the season starts.
That’s not an unreserved recommendation, but there are a lot of positives to take away from it. Obviously conditioning matters, not just for things like speed but also because at 6’2” and right around 200 pounds there shouldn’t be many forwards in the NHL that Schultz can’t compete with physically. Like Robin Brownlee, I’m skeptical that Schultz is going to be physically aggressive over the long haul but there’s no reason he can’t improve in that area.
McLellan, in addressing the question of Schultz’s importance to the team, acknowledged that he’s not expecting Schultz to morph into a banger:
[He is a] very important player, very important piece. We talked about apples and oranges yesterday; he’s different than a lot of other players. He can skate, move the puck, he jumps in. There’s some dynamic offensive skills that he has; he scored that goal last night [by] jumping in and having good timing. He brings a lot to the table that way. Would we like him to defend better? Of course we would, but that can be said for Taylor, Jordan and we’ll talk about Connor at some point during the year doing that. We’d like him to improve in that area. The interesting thing for me is that everyone around here talks around here a lot about his strength and his conditioning – his numbers have gone way up – but for me his strength is between his ears. We should be playing towards that a little, positioning himself properly. Nick Lidstrom didn’t go into the corner to kill guys, he went into the corner to contain guys and take the puck away from them and initiate the breakout. I’m not saying Justin is Nick Lidstrom, but they both have different strengths. Gryba’s physical. Schultz, he’s a smart player, he should be using his mind and his positioning as much as his physical tools.
That reference to apples and oranges refers to an earlier comment in which McLellan stressed the need for players with different skills on the same roster. Certainly there’s a niche open for Schultz, not only because he’s a right side defenceman but also because it’s easy to imagine his skill set as complementary to Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse or Griffin Reinhart. None of those players project as offensive difference makers.
For a Limited Time…
I’ve expressed skepticism that Schultz will ever emerge as a particularly reliable player five-on-five, with the reason being that the Oilers simply haven’t had very good results when he’s out there. In terms of scoring chances, Edmonton routinely has been better off with Schultz on the bench rather than on the ice, even though Schultz plays a disproportionate number of his shifts with the club’s best forwards.
It would be a mistake to ignore contrary evidence, though, and it does exist. It’s a fact that Schultz has been better early in seasons; on the whole the Oilers’ on-ice scoring chance ratio is more than two points better with Schultz on the ice in the first half of the year than it has been in the second. That’s not entirely on Schultz, but given that he’s coming out of the college game (where they play a shorter schedule) it’s not something that should be ignored. He’s shown flashes (particularly with Klefbom last season) and his physical tools are obvious to any eyeball test.
He’s also been good early in this year’s training camp, though of course it’s important not to read too much into that.
The important factors here are that the Oilers have a new general manager, a new head coach, and that Schultz is on a single-season deal. There’s a hole in Edmonton’s long-term plans that is roughly Schultz-sized, and if he plays well early he could force his way into it and make things much easier for the team. If he doesn’t play well early, Edmonton doesn’t really have the luxury of hoping that he’ll eventually turn the corner; the team will need to go shopping for someone else to fill its needs on the right side.
Entering 2015-16, Schultz finds himself at a crossroads. He can keep going in the same direction he’s traveled for the last few years, a direction with no happy destination. Or he can turn the corner, and start becoming the defenceman the Oilers thought they were getting when they signed him to much fanfare in the summer of 2012.
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