Justin Schultz can speak firsthand to both the joys and perils of playing in a hockey mad city. He arrived in Edmonton by choice and with much fanfare, a top NHL defensive prospect that had opted to spurn Anaheim and pass on his choice of destination in order to join the Oilers. It’s been hard to have a balanced discussion about the player ever since.
These days, though, the imbalance tends to run the other way. If Schultz spent his evenings kicking puppies and stealing candy from orphans I’m not sure it would be possible for his stature among fans of the Edmonton Oilers to fall any lower than it is right now.
There are good points to Schultz’s game.
The man has offensive ability, albeit not ability he’s showing this season. Over his career he’s scored 0.77 points/hour at even-strength, which is basically what one would expect from a No. 3 defenceman; that’s above-average production and it compares favourably with people like Andrei Markov and Jay Bouwmeester. He’s been up and down on a mostly bad Edmonton power play, but his numbers at five-on-four are basically second unit material. That’s not ideal, but it’s also not like the Oilers’ other defenceman have been ripping it up on the man advantage.
Schultz is, for the first time in his career, being asked to start his fair share (and then some) of shifts in the defensive zone. When he’s been on the ice this year the Oilers results have been no better and no worse in terms of scoring chances, and they’ve actually been a bit better by most of the shot metrics. When we look at shot location, Edmonton has been slightly better at generating shots from dangerous areas with Schultz on the ice than with him off, and in terms of shots against there’s no big variation except that the Oilers allow fewer point shots against.
He’s certainly had some high-profile gaffes, and his offence drying up has made it easy to ask what it is exactly that he does. But it’s always dangerous to read too much into those high-profile gaffes, which represent a small fraction of total players, and the offence going away is a new and likely temporary thing.
One might argue (as I do) that Schultz is paid too much money for what he does; one might further argue (again, as I do) that given the makeup of Edmonton’s defence and the number of players with contracts extending beyond this year that moving on from Schultz is the right thing to do.
But the amount of displeasure these days seems disproportionate when compared to the actual amount of damage done. It’s not unlike the situation a player from the Oilers not-too-distant past found himself in near the end of his time in Edmonton.
Schultz had some wobbly bits, but the Oilers were asking more of him and he did his best to deliver. The young man is in the ‘get Tom Poti out of here’ era with the fanbase, this is the ugly side of Edmonton hockey. I sat in the stands with my boy as Oilers fans showered Poti with boos, suspect some young fan will experience the same thing with Schultz in the coming days.
There are more than a few parallels between Poti and Schultz.
When Poti was ultimately dealt to the Rangers in March of 2002 (Rem ‘the Gem’ Murray went with him, Mike York and a pick came back) it was after he was all but run out of town. The 25-year-old Poti was a college defenceman in his fourth major-league season and with 285 games of NHL experience. He was a primarily finesse defender with some offensive ability. At the time of the trade Poti had a single goal after scoring 12 the previous year. The bad things he did drove people nuts, the new shine had worn off, and the faltering offence was the final nail in the coffin.
The thing worth remembering about Poti is that when his NHL career finally came to an end—an NHL career which, we should note, was cut short by injury—he’d played 824 games in all. He kept playing NHL hockey for nine seasons after leaving the Oilers, and again if not for injury might have played more.
Poti was held in even less esteem among Oilers fans at the time of his trade than Schultz (25 years old, fourth major-league season, 229 games of NHL experience) is now. Like Schultz, he had some offensive ability; like Schultz he saw the points stop coming at a time when he needed to be making forward strides.
The Oilers got value for Poti in trade; York could play and he eventually turned into Michael Peca. That value wasn’t misplaced, either; Poti continued to play in the NHL for years after. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the same ends up being true of Schultz.