After playing three full seasons as an Oiler, the general consensus among fans seems to be that the team should somehow rid themselves of young Justin Schultz. It's a fair take on the 24 year old defenceman. Despite getting a bulk of ice time at even-strength and powerplay, and getting more than his fair share of offensive zone starts, Schultz has struggled to put up points. As a result, his defensive miscues have been magnified, with the lofty expectations of management making it even worse for Schultz.
Here's a high level summary of his performance to date.
|Justin Schultz, Even-strength|
What we see here is a player that has been pushed into a top-pairing role far too early in his career. Finishing second on the team in total ice-time and average ice-time per game is mind boggling considering how little of professional experience Schultz had coming in to the NHL The coaching staff in 2014/15 gave Schultz a significant amount of the offensive zone starts, which might explain the Corsi-for numbers. Worth noting here is the high shooting percentage Schultz had last year, which would be unsustainable for any player.
Now, there are a few things we have to keep in mind when assessing young Schultz.
Firstly, the club has not had a bonafide number one defenceman since Chris Pronger left. Following Pronger's departure, the Oilers relied heavily on their young prospects, like Ladislav Smid and Matt Greene, to play the bulk of the minutes. There was a time prior to the Pronger era when the club would rely on experienced players like Jason Smith, Janne Ninimaa and Steve Staois to patrol the blueline. These weren't superstar players by any means, but they were typically in their late 20's, with 300-400 games under their belts. The club would still try to develop young players at the NHL level, but management ensured that the prospect was surrounded by experienced players who could take on the tough minutes.
Schultz has clearly been playing over his head since day one. Rather than gradually develop into an NHL defender, the team has instead thrown Schultz right into the fire and tried to develop him on the fly, on the top pairing no less. Schultz was not only handed the top minutes, but he was also surrounded by sub-par and less experienced defenders.
Secondly, in each of the past three seasons, the Oilers have spent a lot of time trailing games at even-strength, forcing the usage of their best offensive players to score the next goal. This past season, they spent the fifth most minutes trailing by one or more goals at even-strength (Source: War on Ice). The year prior, they played the third most minutes trailing. And the defenceman who played the most minutes in each of the past three seasons when the Oilers were trailing was Schultz, one of their least experienced players.
Unfortunately for the club, their best offensive defenceman was Schultz, who saw a lot of ice-time with the top forward unit. This is a major problem and should have been addressed by management early on. Instead of improving their chances to win a game, the club instead relied on a rookie and possibly stunted the individual's development.
Lastly, Schultz is only 24 years old. We know, from Oilers history and from actual research studies that the majority of defenceman do not hit their primes until their late twenties. There is still time for Schultz to develop, but the team will have to make enhancements to their roster to ensure success. Not an ideal scenario, but since the club has invested so heavily in the player, it would be in their best interest to at least review the options.
Move Down the Depth Chart
To really get the most out of Schultz, the team will have to acquire enough talent to push him down the depth chart. The Oilers have become famous for putting players in positions that they're not suited for. Getting Schultz off the top-pairing and into a bottom/middle pairing, power play specialist type role would not only maximize his offensive capabilities, but also give the Oilers a more accurate assessment of what kind of player they have here.
The addition of Andrej Sekera will not only benefit the team, but should also have a positive impact on Schultz's career. He's similar to Jeff Petry as both play a reliable defensive game and often improve their team's play when they're on the ice (Source: TSN). If Schultz can be paired with Sekera, there's a good chance his overall productivity and possession numbers can improve. We know that when Sekera was in Carolina and Buffalo, most if his his linemates were never really negatively impacted when paired with him (Source: Jewels from the Crown, Shutdown Line).
The optics of this strategy are poor, since the club shouldn't have to pay million of dollars to someone who needs to be supplemented by another player. But adding Sekera, and hopefully another experienced defenceman this summer, will provide the guidance a prospect needs and take some of the work load away from Schultz.
Reduce the Minutes
Learning the NHL game while playing top pairing minutes is never ideal for a prospect. Schultz, for whatever reason, whether it be the coaches decision or if it was part of his deal to come to Edmonton, has played far too much for his skill set and has seen his overall time at even-strength grow year over year.
Last season, Schultz averaged over 18 minutes and had an extremely high percentage of offensive zone starts relative to his teammates (+19.92). Over the past five seasons, no other defensemen in the NHL had that kind of ice time and zone start ratio. And if any 24 year olds did get lots of even-strength ice time with a higher percentage of zone starts, they produced, unlike Schultz.
If the Oilers give Schultz about 16 minutes per game at even-strength, and let him continue taking on more offensive zone starts (relative to his teammates) against lesser compeition, they could potentially see a higher level of productivity from the defender. In reviewing the comparables that Scott put together when the Oilers first signed Schultz, we see a few players whose ice time and deployment the Oilers could potentially emulate.
|Points per game|
Not exactly a list of legends, but some very reliable NHL defenders on the list, including Paul Martin, Matt Carle and Alex Goligoski. Schultz's career, at this point, looks like it just might be following Jordan Leopold's and even Jamie McBain's: highly touted college defencemen who really ended up being secondary NHL players. For Schultz, though, there's still hope.
If Schultz moves down to third in time-on-ice among Oilers defenceman at even-strength, and continues getting a push in the offensive zone, he could potentially produce at a similar rate as Detroit's Brendan Smith when he was 24.
|B. Smith (DET)||2013/14||71||1.47||16.52||18||0.92||53.85|
It's worth noting that the Wings developed Smith properly. as the usually do, giving him 152 games in Grand Rapids of the AHL before making the jump full time. But once he made the team, he played the third most minutes as a 24 year old. The club relied on Kyle Quincey and Niklas Kronwall, two experienced players, to be the top pairing and take on the tougher competition. Smith is by no means any sort of all-star. But his usage is one that the Oilers could potentially emulate to get the most out of Schultz.
It'll be up to Schultz to improve his defensive game this summer and secure a long-term contract in the NHL. The Oilers, at this point, have not deployed Schultz effectively, which has become a regular trend within the franchise. Rather than ship him away, it'll be in the Oilers best interest to put Schultz in the proper situation this coming season, deploying him differently and reducing his overall ice time. This includes placing the right expectations on Schultz and getting a proper evaluation of the player. Schultz should benefit from the acquisition of Sekera, and (hopefully) another addition to the defence core, along with a new, experienced, coaching staff.
If Schultz can produce at a consistent level, while playing minutes better suited to his skill set, the Oilers could either sign him to a bridge contract, or a long-term deal, depending on what both parties want. If the Oilers don't envision Schultz in their long-term plan, they could boost his trade value by giving him the right minutes, and hope to recoup some sort of asset, whether it be a draft pick or prospect, in return.