ShareThis Page
Schultz ready to prove worth to Penguins, but who will be odd man out? |

Schultz ready to prove worth to Penguins, but who will be odd man out?

| Friday, March 4, 2016 8:27 p.m
Defenseman Justin Schultz could make his Penguins debut Saturday against the Flames. General manager Jim Rutherford acquired Schultz on Feb. 27 for a third-round pick in this year’s NHL Draft.

Justin Schultz’s introduction to a Mike Sullivan-run Penguins practice Friday at Consol Energy Center began with a drill that addresses one of the core principles in the coach’s system.

Pucks were placed behind the net, where two defensemen quickly retrieved one, passed it between each other and then found a center skating out of the end zone and up the middle of the ice.

The drill led to predictable, replicable decisions from the defensemen. Little of the individual tendencies present in games, where structure breaks down and gives way to creativity and chaos, existed. Schultz, consequently, found no opportunities to set himself apart in one of his specialty areas.

That opportunity might come Saturday, when the Penguins host Calgary. After practice, Sullivan did not reveal whether Schultz will make his debut in a Penguins uniform.

At some point soon, though, Schultz will step into the lineup. Speculation about which defensemen sit as healthy scratches and which dress almost certainly will follow. That’s when Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford will try to stand by their plan to use all seven defensemen — eight once Ben Lovejoy recovers from an upper-body injury — in the season’s final month.

“It’s our responsibility as a coaching staff to try to make the decisions on a game-by-game basis to put the right guys on the ice or the right guys in the lineup on a given night,” Sullivan said. “I believe we will use every one of them.”

Based on his recent history, Sullivan isn’t wary of scratching healthy skaters for extended periods. He kept Sergei Plotnikov out of 20 consecutive games before the Penguins traded the Russian winger to Arizona on Monday. Defenseman Ian Cole was a healthy scratch for 11 straight and broke back into the lineup after Lovejoy went down Feb. 20.

When Rutherford acquired Schultz from Edmonton on Feb. 27, he gave no thought to the Penguins dressing seven defensemen for games, he said. So among the seven currently healthy blue liners, one is all but certain to sit.

“You don’t have to set in stone exactly how it’s going to work out,” Rutherford said. “It always plays itself out.

“We feel we have eight NHL defensemen (with Lovejoy), and we wanted to have depth at all positions. Now, as we go along on a game-to-game or week-to-week basis, our coach will have different options.”

Notably, how Schultz typically goes about moving the puck out of a defensive zone differs from the Penguins’ other bottom-pairing options.

Per 20 minutes of even-strength play, Schultz averaged 15.5 pass exits out of Edmonton’s defensive zone, according to Sportlogiq, which tracks events in hockey games. Lovejoy, by comparison, has averaged 10.9 this season with the Penguins, second lowest only to Trevor Daley’s 10.5.

Daley tends to carry the puck out himself — only Letang does it more often, according to Sportlogiq. Schultz and Cole have the lowest carry-out rates on the team this season.

At even strength, Cole and Lovejoy dump the puck out of their end almost twice as often as Schultz, according to Sportlogiq.

“There are times where that is the play,” Schultz said of just flipping the puck up ice. “I think maybe I can put that in my game more, where you don’t have anything, and you just get it out of your zone. But I feel like if you can keep possession and get it in your forwards’ hands, it’s better than just dumping it out, giving it to their D-men. It’s all possession.”

Puck possession, a weakness for the Penguins earlier this season under Mike Johnston, now ranks as one of the team’s greatest strengths. An emphasis on speed and transition play, assisted with the acquisitions of Schultz, Daley and winger Carl Hagelin, turned the Penguins into prolific shot-generators and also improved their shot suppression.

“Everybody wants to control the play,” Daley said. “The best defense is when the puck is on your stick. The more you can keep the puck on your stick, the better defense you’re going to play.”

Schultz sees the Penguins’ style as his path back to prominence after a discouraging couple of seasons with the Oilers. Stardom is not his goal, but he sees the opportunity to show off the skills that got him to the NHL.

“Jumping up into the play, playing with speed,” he said. “I can’t think of a better team to start doing that again with than the Pens.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

Categories: Penguins
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.