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Capitals Take a Chance on Justin Schultz

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The Caps surprised everyone when they signed free agent and former Penguin Justin Schultz to a two-year deal. It’s a high risk move that could have big rewards.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game One Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The first day of free agency is almost always a wild ride. This year it was more of a weird ride, with uncertainty over the start of next season and a flat salary cap of $81.5 million.

The Capitals first dipped their toes in the free agency pool when they signed legendary sexy goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a completely unsurprising move that had been rumored in the days prior to the deal being struck. Their next move was a bit more of a surprise, though, because while it was known that the Caps were likely looking to add depth somewhere in the lineup, it’s doubtful anyone linked them with Penguin blueliner Justin Schultz. And the two-year, $8M deal the Caps gave him represents a bit of a leap of faith - but one that could end up rewarding them.

Schultz played just 72 of the last 151 games over the last two seasons, both campaigns shortened by a slate of unfortunate injuries. He fractured his left leg early in the 2018-19 campaign and underwent surgery, missing four months, and then missed over 20 games to start the following season. In the games he did play over those two seasons, he managed to score only 27 points (equaling his total from just a single season in 2017-18). He also had an expected goals percentage (xGF%) of 48.40% and high danger scoring chance percentage (HDCF%) of 48.48%. Not a good look for an offensive defenseman.

As with all things, however, context is really important — and one needs to take context into consideration when evaluating Schultz’s performance in recent years. First of all, the defenseman he played with the most over the last two seasons was Jack Johnson, who joined the Penguins prior to the 2018-19 season and has been... well, Jack Johnson.

Comparing how he played alongside Johnson to his second-most frequent defensive partner, Marcus Pettersson (a comparatively strong blueliner), shows something of a Jekyll and Hyde effect:

As the table above shows, when Schultz was anchored to Johnson his stats suffered; when he was away from him he was above average in every stat except scoring chance-for percentage.

The visualization below, via the HockeyViz Environmental Distiller tool, is an even more telling display of how Schultz looked on the ice when Johnson wasn’t with him.

In almost 600 minutes away from Johnson, Schultz looks really good not just offensively but defensively, as well — especially when he was partnered with a good teammate like Pettersson. According to Natural Stat Trick, when those two were paired together over the last two seasons they ranked 11th in xGF% and 23rd in HDCF% among the 100 NHL defensive pairings that played at least 500 minutes.

When Schultz suits up for the Caps, he’ll likely line up with Dmitry Orlov on the second pair. And while Pettersson is a great young player, Orlov is an underrated two-way player, and it’s possible that Schultz will do even better with Orlov (and at worst he’ll maintain the same level of performance).

It will be interesting to see a second pairing of Schultz and Orlov under a new coach. During Barry Trotz’s tenure, and that of successor Todd Reirden, the second pair was used as the team’s shutdown pair — and that will probably not be the case under Laviolette, who tends to spread out defensive responsibility among all three pairings.

So this all looks like good news for the Caps, right? There is a caveat. Yes, Schultz’s numbers vastly improved when he was away from Jack Johnson and skating with Pettersson... but Pettersson experienced a similar bump when he was away from Schultz. Granted, a lot of his time away from Schultz was as a partnership with John Marino, who is a very good young blueliner.

It’s also hard to get a completely accurate picture of Schultz’s abilities, becauses the largest sample size available is really just his work with Johnson and Pettersson. The next most frequent partner for Schultz outside of those two was Brian Dumoulin, who skated just 56 minutes with him over the last two seasons.

And that kind of sums the whole Schultz signing: there are a lot of unknowns. Was his poor season the last two years a combination of being dragged down by his defense partner and some an unfortunate run of injuries? Or was his lackluster performance really just who he is?

What we do know is that GM Brian MacLellan, likely with the feedback of the team’s director of analytics, Tim Barnes as well as new head coach Peter Laviolette, sees him as a strong fit for the team going forward. As MacLellan noted after the signing, Laviolette’s system is based on defensemen jumping up into the play and producing offensively — which a healthy Schultz is capable of doing.

Schultz noted that this was a selling point when he spoke to the media earlier this week.

“They explained to me where I would fit in: join in on the offense and play that game where the dmen are joining, and it was exciting to hear that because that’s one of my strengths.”

If this move pays off, it would give the Caps a one-two offensive punch on the blueline that has been missing since the departure of Mike Green after the 2014-15 season.In fact, since the post-lockout era there have only been two Capitals defensemen not named Green or John Carlson who posted more than 35 points: Matt Niskanen (39 in 16-17) and Dennis Wideman (46 in 11-12). If healthy and used in a way that plays to his strengths, Schultz has 40+ point potential — and can take some offensive pressure off of Carlson, on the power play and at even strength,

This isn’t a slam-dunk signing. There are legitimate questions surrounding Schultz’s ability to not only stay healthy but perform at the level the Caps need him to - and there’s a legitimate chance that this will not work out. But the Caps’ window to win is running out, and they needed to swing for the fences. It’s possible that Schultz could end up being that home run.