The offseason is underway for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it was another disappointing ending. A second straight first-round exit from the postseason has general manager Jim Rutherford calling for change, and he’s wasted no time in beginning these. While playoff hockey is still being played, assistant coaches Sergei Gonchar, Jacques Martin, and Mark Recchi were all relieved of their duties.
The axing of multiple big names in the coaching staff was just the first of many moves that are expected to be made by Rutherford this offseason. While moving on from Evan Rodrigues, in a trade that brought back Kasperi Kapanen, settled one decision to be made with the Penguins upcoming free agents, many more are yet to be made. One of those free agents is Justin Schultz, and given some comments made by Rutherford at the end of the season, it seems like Schultz won’t be returning to the Penguins with a new contract. And that is the right move.
The Downfall of Justin Schultz
Ever since hoisting his second Stanley Cup and signing a three-year, $16.5 million contract in 2017, Schultz has been on a decline. Dropping from quarterbacking a championship power play to skating on the third pairing with Jack Johnson, the downfall of Schultz did more bad than good for the team.
During the 2016-17 season, Schultz recorded a career-high 51 points, and became a playoff hero with 13 points in the postseason, including some huge, game-changing goals. The following season was still respectable but less spectacular, putting up 27 points. While he never again played top-pairing minutes with the Penguins, there was still a high expectation for Schultz.
It is the 2018-19 season where the trouble really began for Schultz. In just the fourth game of the season, he suffered a broken ankle that took him off of the ice for four months. In the 29 games he did play that season, he tallied 15 points – even with a major injury, that wasn’t what was expected from him. The 15 points were a career-low for him at the time.
Then came the 2019-20 season, where the bottom really fell out for Schultz. In the last year of his deal with Pittsburgh, Schultz played in 46 games, scored a career-low 12 points, and was a minus-13, which is the first time he finished a season as a minus player since joining the Penguins. Yes, he suffered another long-term lower-body injury and the season was shortened due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but he played in more games and scored fewer points than the previous season – not exactly how you want to perform when playing to earn a new, higher-priced contract.
The way Schultz played throughout the regular season and playoffs left a lot to be desired. His bad play was really highlighted during the postseason where he was horrendous on the ice – there’s no other way to put it. He was a minus-four and picked up only a secondary assist in Game 1.
Shortly after the season ended, Rutherford had a few words to say about Schultz and Johnson’s performance during the playoffs. Most of it was directed at Schultz, saying he had “…a lot more to give.” And Rutherford is right – Schultz grew into a top playoff performer over his years with the Penguins. It just was not there at all in 2020.
At first, the three-year deal with Schultz looked like a great move. He had career-highs in multiple scoring categories and looked like one of the best defensemen in a Penguins sweater – he deserved to be paid as such. Thankfully for the Pens, the deal comes to an end just in time, as it seems Schultz has lost his game.
As an NHL executive, more often than not you want to get some kind of return when letting people leave your team. In Schultz’s case, there wouldn’t be much coming back if a trade was to be made. The time to make a trade for Schultz was during the 2017-18 season, at his peak just before the plunge.
Despite not getting a return for Schultz, that might be working in their favor. Rutherford was not done making headlines after suggesting Schultz could have played much better. He also mentioned that the Penguins don’t plan on spending as much towards the salary cap for the 2020-21 season. Schultz makes a lot of money and taking his $5.5 million off of the books will only look better when taking the cap into consideration.
A Look Back at Schultz’s Career
Ever since entering the league in 2012 with the Edmonton Oilers, Schultz has always been an offensively gifted, puck-moving blue-liner, despite abysmal plus/minus numbers. While the Oilers were not a good team during his time there, Schultz still led the team in defensive scoring every year. He put up 101 points in the first 248 games of his career.
With Schultz’s downfall and the rapid rise of rookie defenseman John Marino, it seems just about certain that Schultz has reached the end of the road in Pittsburgh. Through his rookie season, Marino contributed 26 points and a plus-17 rating. Both stats are much higher than what Schultz produced during the season.
At one point, Schultz was a much-needed asset with the Penguins squad. He was able to step up and lead the top power-play unit when Kris Letang was hurt or not performing to his ability. Schultz was a top-tier offensive defenseman that the Penguins needed.
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Penguins fans can look back at Schultz’s time with the team as a mostly successful one. He was able to win back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, while scoring multiple important goals in that second run. Being one of the highlights of the 2017 championship parade may have been the last memorable thing he did in Pittsburgh. Schultz’s time with the Penguins has run its course and it’s time to move on.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.