It’s the question that causes a quick divide among Oilers fans — can Justin Schultz be the guy that the Oilers need him to be, and more than that, the guy they’re already playing him as though he is? Edmonton re-upped him for a one year bridge deal this summer (amongst the eight million other things Craig MacTavish did, nearly causing me to miss it in all the kerfuffle), and if Schultz wants to stick with the Oilers after that bridge deal expires, he’s got a lot to prove.
Schultz averaged more minutes per game than any other Oilers defenseman last season, clocking in at 23:20 per night. This is ahead of guys like vet Jeff Petry and rookie Martin Marincin, who actually looked better than Schultz in many stretches, though Marincin was recently sent down to the Oklahoma City Barons, ostensibly to give Darnell Nurse the 9-game look while still giving Marincin top minutes every night. By playing Schultz as a top-pair D despite his struggles, though, and marketing him as a member of Edmonton’s core of “young guns”, Edmonton management has made it very clear that they see Schultz as a key part of the Oilers’ turnaround.
Now he’s just got to live up to that faith they’re putting in him.
Can Schultz be “The Guy”?
Everyone knows Justin Schultz can move the puck. His offensive talent is probably the best known factor about Schultz around the league — apart from the fact that he is soft defensively. Although he played on what was arguably one of the worst defensive corps in the league, his Corsi Rel of -2.58% still looked pretty ugly. Schultz could average two and three points per game and it still wouldn’t matter if he constantly gives the puck away. If you’re on the ice more than any other defenseman on your team, you have to keep the puck. Simple as. Scoring is great. Scoring is wonderful. But scoring doesn’t mean anything if you can’t keep the other team from doing it.
Schultz looked good in the preseason. He likes to jump up into the rush, and he was able to do that a fair few times. But contributing offensively simply isn’t enough. Schultz has to improve his play in his own zone to justify the salary he got this season and the contract he’s going to want at the end of the year. More than that, he’s going to have to improve his play in his own zone if the Oilers are going to have any hope of making the playoffs this year.
Everyone I’ve seen talking about training camp says that he looks better, but exhibition games against teams that are trying to trim down their rosters aren’t the best judge of whether a player has really stepped up or not. It’s going to take real regular season games to make an actual judgement. But one thing is for certain: if your organization is as committed to you as the Oilers have shown that they are to Schultz, you owe it to them to be just as committed. We’ll see if he is.