While it may be hard for a fraction of the fan base to accept, the Edmonton Oilers have actually missed not having Justin Schultz in their lineup. By the sounds of it the 25-year old is on the verge of making his return to action and if healthy, he will be a welcomed addition to this team’s backend. For the first time in ages, it looks as though the Oilers could potentially have three pairings in which there is no real black hole on their blue line.
Schultz’s return likely to come on the weekend at Detroit.
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) November 24, 2015
Don’t get me wrong, that does not mean this defence is good enough to compete on a nightly basis in today’s NHL. Their lack of top-end talent on the backend is no secret, but that is not going to change anytime soon. However, by adding Schultz back into the equation Edmonton could be looking at a defence that will consist of Brandon Davidson, Mark Fayne, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Schultz and Andrej Sekera, with Eric Gryba being worked in from time to time.
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While far from the deepest of groups, outside of Fayne and Gryba, the Oilers could have up to five regulars who are more than capable of moving the puck up ice. Also with the emergence of Nurse, the improved play of Fayne and a far more comfortable looking Sekera, there is absolutely no reason for Todd McLellan and company to force feed Schultz minutes upon his return. A luxury he did not have earlier this season and one that previous coaching staffs never had at their disposal.
Accepting Schultz For What and Who He Is
With pairings of Sekera-Nurse, Klefbom-Fayne, Davidson-Schultz along their backend, Edmonton would essentially have three tandems to split the workload on. Whereas a player like Gryba has displayed a tendency to struggle with increased ice-time, the other six have shown the ability to take on somewhere in the neighbourhood of 17-22 minutes of playing time with regularity. The problems start to occur when they are asked to push that total up towards 25 minutes, which is an area only a handful of blueliners in this league can truly venture into a nightly basis.
As of this moment, the Oilers do not have any of those players and because of it, rolling three units is an absolute necessity for this group. The aforementioned tandems give them that ability and should allow Schultz the opportunity to not only work out the rust from not playing but also put him in a role he is best suited for. From the moment the former second-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks arrived in the Alberta capital, he has been asked to do a lot of heavy lifting for a terrible team and not surprisingly he has struggled with transitioning his game to the NHL level.
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Be it partnered with a player like Davidson or being reunited with Klefbom, a pairing which has produced mixed results in previous incarnations, Schultz has something to offer this team. Contrary to what some may think, Schultz can move the puck rather effectively and while he may accomplish it more often than not with his skating as opposed to passing, it produces a similar result…getting the puck out the Oilers zone. Which remains one of this team’s biggest shortcomings.
How Severe Is the Back Injury?
Outside of what was just an awful performance against the Washington Capitals, which was the game before he was forced from the lineup with back issues against the Los Angeles Kings, the former University of Wisconsin standout had started to show a marked improvement in his own end of the rink. Were there still issues with his game? Of course but other than that one game, there were no jaw-dropping blunders in his own zone and the so-called “chaos” in his game was not nearly as prevalent. In my mind, if they can lighten his workload we could see a different player.
However, the issue now becomes the condition of his back. Whether you choose to call it a “herniated” or “bulging” disc, the fact of the matter is Schultz will have to get used to playing with pain for the remainder of the year…if not his entire career. Obviously it is not an ideal situation for either the player or the team but it is nonetheless the circumstance they now face. With unrestricted free agency staring him squarely in the face and having yet to take that next step in his overall development, this is not exactly the scenario the Kelowna native was hoping to be in.
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With that said, the Edmonton Oilers are in desperate need of a spark after an absolutely awful showing during Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. This group has now dropped the opening two games of their current five-game road trip and have won just two of their nine outings since losing Connor McDavid to a broken collarbone.
On top of that it looks as though they could be without Nail Yakupov for the next little bit after injuring his leg in a bizarre collision with a linesman Matt MacPherson against the Canes. Add that all together and perhaps the return of Justin Schultz may be the shot in the arm this team needs. Be it against the Detroit Red Wings or Pittsburgh Penguins, getting No. 19 back into the swing of things is an absolute necessity.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.