5 Penguins That Need to Shine in Schultz’s Absence

The Pittsburgh Penguins may have failed to secure the extra point in their 4-3 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night, but that wasn’t the worst news of the evening. Defenseman Justin Schultz suffered a lower leg fracture after an awkward fall in the corner and is expected to miss a significant amount of time.

The injury, which can be viewed here, happened as Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec was finishing his check in the corner, but Schultz’s ankle rolled under him as he fell backwards and he was in agony as soon as he hit the ice. The hit was not dirty or illegal, just unfortunate. On Monday morning, the Penguins took to Twitter to announce that Schultz had undergone successful surgery and that he would be out for four months.

After a rough first few years in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, Schultz has had a career resurgence since being traded to the Penguins in 2016 for a third-round draft pick. After helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups, Schultz signed a 3-year, $16.5 million contract in July of 2017.

Since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Schultz has 21 goals and 82 assists in 178 games (including playoffs) and has been consistently slotted in as the Penguins’ number-two defenseman behind Kris Letang. This season, Schultz is leading all Penguins defensemen in assists (4) and plus/minus (plus-4).

A smart, puck-moving playmaker who has really bought into head coach Mike Sullivan’s system, Schultz is not replaceable. He plays all situations and will be dearly missed as he recovers. Thankfully for Penguins fans, this team is deep. The entire locker room will need to step up in Schultz’s absence, but here are five players who specifically need to take their game to the next level:

Matt Murray

It all starts between the pipes. Murray began the season with a couple of less-than-stellar starts, allowing 11 goals on 65 shots in his first two games, and was then diagnosed with a concussion. Now that he has been cleared to return to action, his play in net becomes crucial without the services of a number-two defenseman.

Even with Schultz in the lineup, the Penguins haven’t been great defensively. They rank 28th in the NHL in shots against per game (35.5) and 26th in goals-against per game (4.00), yet they have somehow managed to earn a 2-1-1 record. It’s difficult to solely blame the goaltenders when they are being peppered with shots every night, but Murray will need to take his game to another level if the Penguins want to be in a playoff spot when Schultz returns.

Matt Murray Penguins
Matt Murray will need to be huge without Schultz in the lineup (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The biggest fear right now is that Murray suffers another setback, given his concussion history. If this happens, not only would it really muddle the situation in between the pipes, but it would put nearly all of the pressure on Casey DeSmith. It’s never good to be focusing on goaltending just four games into the season, but if the Penguins are going to thrive over the next four months, it will be Murray leading the way.

Olli Maatta

Speaking of Penguins who haven’t played well so far, Olli Maatta needs to be better in every facet of his game. After entering the first offseason of his career relatively healthy, many were expecting an improved Maatta who would jumpstart the blue line. Unfortunately, it’s been the opposite, and after failing to record a point in the first two games, on top of earning a minus-3 rating, Maatta was a healthy scratch for the team’s Oct. 11 game against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Maatta returned to the lineup in the Penguins’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Canadiens, the game in which Schultz’s injury occurred, but was once again he was a non-factor. He logged just under 20 minutes of ice time, but failed to record a point.

Islanders center Mathew Barzal
Olli Maatta has had a rough start to the 2018-19 season and will need to improve with Schultz out for four months. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Penguins’ third pairing has been a bit of a revolving door as Sullivan has tried to find the best defensive scheme, but with Schultz out of the lineup for an extended period of time, Maatta will be in there every night without question. He will also likely be playing extra minutes on the second power-play unit and on the penalty kill, where he will need to make a difference for the better.

Maatta has struggled in the past with self-confidence, but with Schultz out, he will need to improve his game immediately if the Penguins are going to be a strong defensive team.

Bryan Rust

As the old saying goes “the best defense is a good offense,” and so far Bryan Rust has not been providing the Penguins with any offense. Through four games, he has zero points and a minus-3 rating. He is not known for his explosive offensive prowess, but as a veteran of the Penguins’ bottom-six forwards, he needs to start producing.

Bryan Rust has yet to record a point through the Penguins’ first four games. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sullivan has toyed with the idea of placing Rust on the top line with Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby, but until he starts showing some offensive promise, he is a better fit playing on one of the checking lines. With players like Crosby, Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, and most recently Phil Kessel flying around the ice on the top two lines, the Penguins are almost impossible to match up against, but it’s unreasonable to ask them to put up four, five, or six goals per night. Without Schultz in the lineup, the Penguins are going to need to win a lot of 5-4 and 6-5 games and the bottom-six is going to have to start scoring; Rust needs to lead that rush.

Daniel Sprong

Contrary to Rust, who I believe should spend the next few months in the bottom-six forward rotation, Daniel Sprong needs to work his way onto one of the top two lines. He has incredible offensive upside and Penguins fans have wanted him to be called up for years. He hasn’t had a terrible start to the season, recording three assists through four games, but he needs to bury the puck.

Sprong showed a glimpse of his offensive ability in the Penguins’ shootout loss to the Canadiens with a beautiful assist to linemate Dominik Simon to open the scoring:

Sprong is no stranger to lighting the lamp (65 points in 65 games last year in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre), he just needs to find his stride and quickly, to make up for Schultz’s absence. Over the next four months, expect Sprong to steadily move up the lineup and don’t be surprised if he finds himself playing alongside Crosby or Malkin. It’s a lot to ask of the 21-year-old from The Netherlands, but with Schultz down, he needs to begin producing night in and night out.

Jack Johnson

Last but not least, Jack Johnson needs to start earning his cut. After signing a five-year, $16.25 million contract in the offseason, Johnson has been arguably the biggest disappointment this season. It’s early, so it isn’t time to hit the panic button, but if the Penguins are going to succeed without Schultz, Johnson is going to have to be a key part of it.

Johnson has zero points through the Penguins’ first four games and hasn’t made much of an impact at either end of the ice. No one is asking Johnson to be an elite defenseman, but he needs to somehow find a way to be relevant now that his ice time is likely to increase.

Jack Johnson Alexander Nylander
With Schultz out for four months, Jack Johnson is the defenseman that Penguins fans will look to for improvement. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

I would like to see Johnson be a little more aggressive in the offensive zone. During the 2013-14 season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, he put up 33 points in 82 games. The next year, he put up 40 points in 78 games. So what’s the biggest difference between those two seasons and the last three in which he put up 14, 23, and 11 points, respectively? He was shooting the puck more.

During his 77-point stretch from 2013-15, Johnson had 288 shots which average out to 1.8 shots per game. In his first four games with the Penguins this season, he has only recorded three. When given the puck in the offensive zone, his first look has been to back it into the corners, which is the safe play but now is the time to start throwing some shots toward the netminder.

Without Schultz in the lineup, eyes will be on Johnson to earn that new, juicy contract. He needs to remind himself that he doesn’t need to be a superstar he just needs to be a reliable, two-way defenseman as Schultz rehabs his leg injury.