The Edmonton Oilers have a very interesting situation with Justin Schultz. Young defensemen with superlative offensive skills and average NHL size aren't easy to come by. There's still significant work to do on his game without the puck, but his box of skills suggests that it's work worth investing in.
Justin Schultz is an older prospect (he's already twenty-three years old), so it's easy to forget that he's had just over 100 NHL games so far in his career. He's got enough talent that patience is needed, even if he's not yet able to help carry the play at evens. Edmonton's 43.2% Fenwick percentage with Schultz on the ice is good evidence of this, especially given that Schultz is starting a higher ratio of his shifts in the offensive zone than any other regular defenseman (unless you count Philip Larsen as a regular). It's safe to say that, in his current role, Schultz has been part of the problem.
It's that phrase "in his current role" that I really wonder about though. I think that it's been clear for two seasons now that Schultz would have benefited from sheltered minutes on an NHL third pairing alongside a player with significant experience as well as plenty of time on the power play to take advantage of his offensive skills. That would have immediately put him in position to succeed. It's impossible to hide a player completely, so he'd get the odd shift against the other team's best players, but for the most part, he'd have been allowed to adjust to the NHL game at a reasonable pace.
But that isn't what happened. Last season, Schultz averaged 21:26 per game, and this year he's up to 23:30 per game, easily the most minutes on the team and 35th overall in the NHL. This is the opposite of bringing him along slowly. Has playing Schultz that much helped him, or would he have been better off with, say, 18:00 per night?
I tend to think the latter was the better plan both for the player and for the team, and given some of his defensive deficiencies, would welcome that kind of deployment for him next season too. It was silly of the Oilers to expect so much so soon, and the results have been predictably poor, but there's no reason for them not take a step back. Schultz is an older prospect, but with four more seasons before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, Craig MacTavish can push for a two-year bridge contract and provide the kind of help necessary for the coach to feel comfortable using Schultz in a reduced (and more suitable) role.
I guess that's the message I have here. Justin Schultz has been overwhelmed this year, but it's more of an organizational depth problem than it is a problem with Schultz himself. I had Schultz ranked the lowest last time around because I've always been somewhat skeptical of his potential to become a top pairing all-around defenseman. They've put him in that role, and he's had a hard time. But in a different role, I still think he can be tremendously valuable to a winning team.