When defenceman Justin Schultz was with the Edmonton Oilers, he was in a form of hockey jail; in solitary confinement, trying to get through games with his skill-set failing him.
While teammates liked him a lot, it was a lonely existence on the ice. The boos from the seats, the angry callers to the talk shows. The message was loud and clear; “Get this guy out of here.”
It wasn’t fair because Schultz was collateral damage with the Oilers not going anywhere year after year.
He got caught up in it; he was hyped too high when the Oilers signed him as a college free-agent.
Now that he’s with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has a Stanley Cup ring, 44 points, he’s plus-28, and currently on the point on the No. 1 power play because Kris Letang is hurt. Life is good. He’s smiling again but his former teammate Matt Hendricks says he wasn’t given too much too soon. It was all the losing.
“By no means did the organization throw him into the lion’s den and expect him to fail,” said Hendricks. “You have to look at injuries, transactions, how veterans are playing — maybe not as well as they needed to. So he gets more minutes because of that as well.
“It was an accumulation of a lot of things. The forwards weren’t good enough, the defencemen weren’t good enough, the goaltending wasn’t good enough. Nobody was having career years here.”
When the Oilers pardoned Schultz late last February, dealing him to the Penguins for a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, which they used on a Swedish defenceman Filip Berglund, it was like Schultz had seen daylight for the first time in eons. A chance to breath again. His confidence, in tatters here, is back to where it was when the Oilers first signed him in 2012
“I, obviously, didn’t play well at all when I was here. Especially near the end. I needed a change in environment,” said Schultz.
“I remember near the end here, being pretty down. When you don’t have confidence, at all, you’re afraid of making a mistake every time you have the puck. That’s what it was like near the end.”
The Penguins had to build Schultz up when they got him. Playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin helps, as does playing on a team with Cup aspirations, not dreams, like the Oilers.
“When we acquired Justin we knew we were getting a guy with really good offensive instincts and we thought he could fit into the style we want to play,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He sees the ice well, passes the puck extremely well. He’s a mobile guy and that’s the type of defence corps we’re trying to build.
“We tried to put him into situations when we first acquired him where he could play to his strengths. For the most part, he didn’t play against the top six forwards of our opponents. We tried to use him in offensive situations are play him behind players like Crosby or Malkin in certain situations where his skill-set would them them and they’d help him. I give Justin so much credit for the overall development of his game. He’s really made a commitment to play the game at both ends of the rink. The Penguins are reaping the rewards right now.”
Crosby knows lots of kids get drafted or signed by one team and have to go to another team to succeed.
“Sometimes all you need is a different look,” he said. “Justin’s done an unbelievable job with all the injuries back there (Letang, Trevor Daley, Olli Maatta). On the power play and five-on-five, he’s been really solid. We’re lucky to have him. The way he’s played this year has been huge for us.”
Oilers coach Todd McLellan is very happy for Schultz, knowing he needed out.
“There was a lot of stress and tension put on Justin here, whether it was fans, teammates, coaches,” said McLellan. “We wanted him to feel as if we believed in him. More of a hug environment than a kick environment. We felt he needed an arm around him a bit and tried that. He’d respond but there were a lot of kicks coming from other places (fans). Sometimes you have to get away.
“You win a Stanley Cup and you become a more comfortable player. I’m glad he’s having this year. We want players leaving us to succeed.”