Yeah, a super-fresh reference to a B-list TV show from the ’70’s! That will get all the millennial eyeballs on this article, Kevin!
Perhaps lost in the Penguins recent winning streak, highlighted by Sidney Crosby’s assault on NHL goalies and the nets they protect, has been the strong run of play by Justin Schultz. In fact, what is happening is Justin Schultz blossoming into the potential he was touted as having many years ago when he caused waves by snubbing a deal with Anaheim to go to Edmonton.
Mostly because Edmonton was hot garbage during his time there, Justin Schultz never fully developed into a proper NHL defenseman. He’s not going to be a stay-at-home, pound-your-face-into-the-boards d-man, but what he is developing into is a well-rounded defenseman.
If I were to ask you who was leading the Pens’ defensemen corps in Corsi, who would you guess? Kris Letang would be the easy answer, but in actuality it’s Schultz.
For the uninitiated, Corsi is a rough metric to indicate possession. Essentially, it is a percentage based on how many shots are taken versus how many shots are taken against, while a certain player is on the ice. Anything above 50% is ideal.
It’s not as if Schultz is playing with Kris Letang, either. He’s primarily been the 3rd pairing with Ian Cole all year, so seeing both of them well clear of 50% is heartening. Clearly, Letang and whoever his partner is (mostly Dumoulin) are going to have a strong Corsi because of Letang’s greatness and the fact they are typically matched with either Crosby or Malkin’s lines. But to see the Penguins’ 3rd pairing, usually with the Pens’ 3rd lines and against other teams strong lines at times, doing so well is showing that there are few cracks at the moment in the defenseman ranks.
At the end of this past season, Justin Schultz made a huge bet on himself. He willingly took a pay cut from his 2015-16 salary of $3.9M to his salary of only $1.4M this year. He wanted to build his value up and fully eradicate the stink of his Edmonton years. Sure, he just won a Cup as a bit player and could have gotten himself a Lovejoy-type of deal, but instead he wanted to return to a strong team and continue to refine his game.
His gambit may look to pay off this summer as he’s positioning himself quite well on the free agent market. Here’s a list from CapFriendly of all d-men eligible for free agency, sorted by points. If you set aside Kevin Shattenkirk (age 27), I would hazard to say that Schultz (age 26) is the best or 2nd best d-man available. There’s no way the teams are going to let their 22 and 23-year old RFA’s go to free agency that currently have more points than him, and players like Trevor Daley and Andrei Markov are getting a little long in the tooth.
Schultz is setting himself up for a monster deal that could easily eclipse $5M per season on a 5 year term. Could it be with the Penguins? Probably not, just based on all the other high-value salary commitments they have on the books. Again, as per CapFriendly, the Penguins have a shade over $11M of cap space for next year and still need 9 players. Yes, some cap space can be cleared up with the ever-present Fleury trade, but it’s not like the Pens will be flush with cash all of a sudden.
Essentially, this is the best possible outcome path for all parties. The Penguins are successful this year because of a strong d-corps through all three pairings. Schultz is setting himself up for future riches due to his personal strong play and a great team system that is buoying his performance. It’s a win-win.