Justin Schultz has been with the Pittsburgh Penguins since general manager Jim Rutherford traded for him back in 2016 in exchange for a third-round pick. It’s safe to say the Penguins would do this trade again and again if they could. Since he joined the team from the Edmonton Oilers, he has scored 101 points, posted a plus/minus of plus-56, and has averaged almost 20 minutes per game. Schultz, though, has had injury problems the last two seasons and is entering the final year of his contract. Should the Penguins consider trading him before he reaches free agency after this season?
Schultz Anchored Defense in Cup Run
The Penguins have revitalized Schultz’s career. His best season was in 2016-17 season when he had 51 points in the regular season and added 13 more in the playoffs en route to the Penguins’ second consecutive Stanley Cup. He averaged 20 minutes a night throughout the season and postseason and became a force on the power play after Kris Letang got hurt. Management rewarded him with a three-year, $16.5-million ($5.5 million average annual value [AAV]) contract extension following that season.
As reported by Jonathan Bombulie of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Penguins have traded players who will become free agents at the end of the current season (from ‘Penguins Predictions: How long will Justin Schultz stay in black and gold?,’ Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 08/15/2019) This would imply that the Penguins would try to trade Schultz on the last year of his contract to cash in on his value. Carl Hagelin and Derrick Brassard were traded last season and they both were on the last year of their contracts. The Penguins, who are currently over the salary cap, could save $5.5 million if the decide to trade Schultz. With that, management could sign restricted free agent (RFA) Marcus Pettersson to a deal as well as look into extending Jared McCann and Matt Murray, both of whom will be RFAs after this season.
Alex Galchenyuk is the only other unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season on the Penguins roster aside from Schultz. Galchenyuk doesn’t seem like someone who will be extended because of the recent deals to Brandon Tanev ($3.5 million AAV for six years) and Jack Johnson ($3.25 million AAV for four more years). Schultz is also more valuable and important than Galchenyuk to the team at this stage considering the position he plays and the lack of options behind him. So if anyone deserves a contract extension, it would be him.
Would Schultz Be Missed?
So what would the Penguins defense look like without Schultz? It would not benefit them to have a second defensive pairing of Pettersson and either Johnson or Erik Gudbranson. Sure, Pettersson and Gudbranson had some success together last season but that was in a very sheltered role as a third pairing and is not suited to work as a second paring. Let’s not forget that Letang missed 17 games last season and is not getting any younger. Letang also had a neck injury in the 2016-17 season that caused him to miss the remaining 41 games of the regular season and the entire 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is always a cause for concern and potential re-injury.
Their defense depth is also non-existent. One injury to one of their top four d-men could cripple the team’s blue line. The Penguins could decide to get something instead of nothing for Schultz but this would hurt the team’s chances, especially they are in “win-now” mode. Even a mid-season trade does not make sense unless the team somehow is not in contention. If Schultz can return to his 2016-17 season form, the Penguins would be better not trading Schultz and making another Cup run. Even if he decides to walk at the end of the season, he is too important to the blue line to trade him this season, and if he is open to it, the Penguins should consider extending his contract mid-season or trying to work out a deal before he hits the open market.