The Friday night debacle was a reminder that the Oilers are
still a developing team. It was painful to watch, almost embarrassing. This is
a team only a few months removed from finishing 28th in the NHL. As
the team continues to be shaped by McLellan and Chiarelli, it is also changing
along with the young players who are growing as NHLers. Chief among them,
Yes, Connor McDavid will be the tide that raises all ships,
but the last game really highlighted where the Oilers stand if Justin Schultz
struggles. This is a team that very much relies on the offensive-minded
defender, no matter how that makes the bloggers feel.
As of writing this, Justin Schultz is leading the team in
ice time at more than 23 minutes per game. That’s almost three minutes more than
the next Oiler. He is not a side character in the story of this club. He is a
And Todd McLellan isn’t the only one to have played him well
ahead of other options. He has lead the Oilers in TOI/G in every season he’s
played in the NHL except his rookie campaign when he finished second.
He has certain skills that have made him an attractive option to veteran and
rookie coaches alike. Maybe the most important is how he moves on the ice. He
is a mobile defender in an NHL that requires it and on a club with a defense
that has struggled to move around the ice.
This season more than ever the young defender has been
involved in every aspect of the game. He was an offensive specialist who played
a mountain of minutes on the PP and at evens but was kept as far away from the
PK as humanly possible. Last year he averaged just 20 seconds per game on the penalty kill. Brad Hunt (!) averaged twice that much in Oiler silks. Only
Oesterle played less 4v5 per game than Schultz. He was the 12th
option on defense.
Under McLellan his PK time has ballooned to 2:19 per game
which is the second highest on the defense behind only Oscar Klefbom.
Before the game against the Caps the Oilers had the top ranked PK efficiency. I
would love to report that it’s being driven by a reduced number of shots/shot
attempts with Schultz & Klefbom on the ice but it does look goalie driven
so far. Still, it’s only eight games into the season and this is a new discipline
On the power play he continues to lead the Oilers in PP TOI/G. He’s playing 3:37 per game on the PP, often as the only defender on the ice. He’s absolutely integral to the 5v4 attack right now. Andrej Sekera is a distant second at 2:19 per game.
At even strength Schultz is also leading the Oilers in TOI/G at 17:15. Though, in this game state the Oilers are much more evenly distributed. Still, there’s no denying that McLellan and his staff has made Schultz the focal point of the defense just as previous coaching staffs have done before him. Perhaps because he added the PK duties McLellan has made him even more integral to the success of the team.
Early in the season we all noted how much more aggressive on
the puck he looked. It wasn’t just about hitting someone or pairing up in a
scrum instead of skating away. It was about battling for open pucks and being
assertive in his own end. The change was welcome but Friday was a reminder that
this new Schultz isn’t here full-time yet.
We’re 211 games into his NHL career and inching ever closer
to that vaunted 300 game mark when we should have a much more clear idea of
what the end product for this blueliner should be. The evolution of Justin
Schultz is integral to the success of the Oilers. Todd McLellan has added new
duties to Schultz’ plate. He was a key member of the defense before, now I don’t
know if there’s a player on the team right now who will be more impactful to
the club’s success than number 19.
NHL teams succeed from the goaltender outwards. Logging the
most minutes overall, number one at evens, number one on the power play, and number two on the PK, the puck goes through Schultz first before it makes its way to the
forwards. He is the key to the attack.
As he succeeds, the team succeeds. As he fails, the team