Penguins’ Justin Schultz to miss 4 months with broken leg
For the first two weeks of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season, there was no hotter topic. Which of the team’s top seven defensemen should be scratched for each of the team’s first four games?
First it was training camp standout Juuso Riikola. Then it was struggling veteran Olli Maatta. Finally, on Saturday in Montreal, it was Jamie Oleksiak.
All had their pluses and minuses, their fierce supporters and detractors.
Inside the Penguins organization, though, the debate never reached a fever pitch. Why? The team’s decision makers have all seen an NHL season or two unfold in the past. They all knew a defenseman would get hurt sooner or later, rendering the arguments moot.
What they didn’t know is how severe the injury bug’s bite would be once it struck.
The Penguins found out Sunday that defenseman Justin Schultz would miss four months after having surgery to repair a broken left leg, the team announced Monday.
Schultz was injured during Saturday night’s game, falling awkwardly on a hit by Tomas Plekanec with his left ankle buckling underneath him.
If there’s good news for the Penguins, it’s that Schultz isn’t out for the season. If his recovery goes as planned, he should return a few weeks before the trade deadline.
It didn’t feel much like good news Monday, though.
A laid-back character who became a Pittsburgh folk hero when he chugged beers while strolling down the Boulevard of the Allies during the 2017 Stanley Cup parade, Schultz is as well-liked a player as there is in the locker room.
Seeing the replay of his graphic injury was unpleasant for his teammates.
“It’s pretty cringe-worthy to look and kind of see his leg snap like that,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “It’s tough to watch, especially when it’s one of your buddies. You just wish him the best.”
Dumoulin said he spoke to Schultz after the surgery.
“He wants to be in the room,” Dumoulin said. “He wants to be with us. I think that’s the hardest part when you’re out injured. You kind of lose some of the locker room and you’re not around as much. He’s the type of guy that everyone loves. We’ll keep him close to us, try to keep him involved as much as we can.”
The Penguins have been carrying eight defensemen since the start of the season, so no immediate AHL recall was necessary. Trying to trade for a Schultz replacement isn’t imminent either, as general manager Jim Rutherford will first lean on the defensive depth he spent a lot of the summer building.
Riikola, Maatta and Oleksiak now look to be solidly among the team’s top six defensemen, with Chad Ruhwedel acting as a seventh and Zach Trotman waiting in the wings.
“That composure with the puck and that puck possession he really brings to the team is going to be huge and something we’re going to miss,” Oleksiak said. “We’re going to have to do a job filling that in. It hurts, but that’s part of hockey.”
As they try to replace Schultz, the Penguins will simultaneously try to improve a defense that has allowed four goals and 35.5 shots per game so far, figures that rank near the bottom of the league.
Coach Mike Sullivan said the improvement doesn’t have to come from one or two individual defensemen in Schultz’s absence. It has to be much more comprehensive than that.
“It’s in the details of the game,” Sullivan said. “It’s decision making. It’s staying on the right side of people or the right side of the puck. It’s making them come through five of us in order to create a scoring chance. It’s making sure we don’t beat ourselves with unnecessary penalties or poor line changes.
“I could go on and on. There’s so many details associated with it. But certainly that has to become part of the fabric of our team identity if we’re going to be the team we’re capable of being.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.