The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Tuesday night matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes marked Justin Schultz’s third consecutive game-day absence. The defensive situation in Pittsburgh then worsened further when Trevor Daley left in the second period of the game and never returned to the bench. I’d say I’m nostalgic for a time this season when the Penguins had a healthy defensive lineup, but it’s hard to think of one.
For a team that hoisted the Stanley Cup less than a year ago, the Penguins have long lacked a star-studded defense. Besides Kris Letang, they don’t have any top-ranked defensemen. Schultz had an underwhelming introduction to the Penguins’ roster after he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers almost exactly one year ago.
This season, in the face of significant injuries on the defensive roster, Schultz has stepped up his performance both in terms of ice time and quality of play. Schultz was the backup of choice when the Penguins faced injuries this fall. Now missing him, Daley and Olli Maatta, the Penguins will flounder to find players who can put up Schultz’s level of play and average ice time.
Schultz’s average ice time picked up significantly starting on Dec. 16. Why? Because on Dec. 15, Letang suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out the lineup for the rest of the month.
The Penguins turned to Schultz, who had been performing well as of late, to help make up for the significant ice time Letang maintains every game. I’ve talked in past articles about the jump in Schultz’s playing time after the Letang injury in December. After that Dec. 16 game, Schultz has steadily averaged over 20 minutes per game.
In addition to the amount of time he spends on the ice per game (since Dec. 16, it’s been the most of any defenseman on the team besides Letang), Schultz has also maintained the highest plus-minus rating on the team (and indeed, one of the highest in the league). He also has the most points of any defenseman on the team at 39 so far this season.
You don’t usually hear the name Justin Schultz said alongside those of Brent Burns, Eric Karlsson and Duncan Keith, but the standings tell a different story; Schultz has the sixth most points of any defensemen in the league this season, and yeah, that high in the rankings, he’s in good company.
All of these stats show that Schultz has had a truly impressive season. Perhaps he has found his home here in Pittsburgh. But they also make him very difficult to replace.
Schultz was diagnosed with a concussion after the Penguins’ Feb. 16 game against the Winnipeg Jets. No return timeline has been announced, but he has so far missed three games. Olli Maatta is also out after having hand surgery following that same game. Trevor Daley is questionable with a lower-body injury after Tuesday’s win against the Hurricanes. That means that the replacements for Schultz’s ice time will most likely come from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups like Steve Oleksy and Chad Ruhwedel.
Both Oleksy and Ruhwedel have their benefits. Oleksy is a six-foot tall d-man on a relatively small team who can hold his own in hits (fun fact: the Penguins are ranked 20th in the NHL in terms of height. Get well soon, 5’8″ Conor Sheary.) Ruhwedel has made some very bright plays in his past few games.
The Penguins, though, will surely miss Schultz, who has impressed in both his average playing time and his production numbers so far this season. Hopefully more information will be released this week in terms of what sort of timeline can be expected for his return.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.