Taking a trip back in time, it’s arguable that the Justin Schultz of the past is nothing compared to the Justin Schultz of today.
There were high hopes for the Big Ten product when he signed with the Oilers back in 2012. Schultz had lit the lamp several times while playing with the Wisconsin Badgers, putting up 113 points in 121 games and showing promise as a top-4 offensive defensemen.
“We used to play each other in college,” St. Cloud alum Nick Jensen said of Schultz. “He’d always be scoring against me.”
He went on to excel in his transition from the NCAA to AHL, leading all the league’s blueliners in scoring with 48 points in just 34 appearances with the Oilers’ affiliate Oklahoma City Barons. The rookie also became the first freshman to win the Eddie Shore award as the AHL’s best defenseman.
And in that moment, it appeared that Edmonton finally found the solution to its problems on the backend. The Oilers had a standout right-hand shot who could quarterback a power play and was committed to improving his play in his end to boot.
That belief appeared to stand in his breakout first season, where he came up and didn’t skip. beat with 31 points in 48 games as he finished seventh in Calder voting.
However, in the years that followed, his play with Edmonton would deteriorate. His play in the defensive zone would struggle as he’d falter at times, and his offensive output wouldn’t be enough to compensate. Not to mention, the expectations and pressure he faced was mounting, and ultimately, things just weren’t clicking.
The coaching carousel didn’t help either, nor did the increased pressure. Schultz was carrying a lot of the weight on the Oilers backend — or at least trying to — as the team looked to erase nearly a decade of disappointment with Connor McDavid now entering the picture.
“I’m just pretty inconsistent right now,” he’d told reporters just days before the 2016 trade deadline, adding, “I don’t know if [trade talk] is weighing on me. I definitely hear it... I just got to focus on playing hockey right now. Whatever happens, happens.”
Then, on deadline day, his time with Edmonton came to an end as he was dealt to Pittsburgh for a third-round pick. He’d finish his tenure with 28 goals, 101 points and a minus-78 rating through 248 games.
“[Edmonton is] a team that’s been building with a lot of young players and they’ve been going through that rebuild and have just had a lot of really young, skilled players, and it hasn’t all come together for them,” Pittsburgh’s former GM Jim Rutherford put it lightly. “I think they’re getting closer now, but when you have that many young players, it can be difficult for everybody. So we’re hoping the change for him will be good.”
And it was good, in those first couple seasons. The then-25-year-old had a strong finish to the 2015-16 regular season with seven points in 18 games and started to find his footing with the Pens in 15 playoff games, where he averaged around 13 minutes per game and racked up 12 blocks, 13 hits and four assists en route to a Stanley Cup Championship.
His breakout would come the following season when he emerged as the Penguins’ top blueliner. He led all the team’s defensemen in GP (78), goals (12), assists (39) and points (51), and his 20:27 TOI/game was ranked third among d-men with at least 20 GP. His spectacular campaign would see him finish tenth in Norris Trophy voting, and his success carried over yet again to the postseason as his 13 points (first among PIT defensemen) in 21 games helped the Penguins go back-to-back.
“The coaches did a great job easing me into it,” Schultz said of his tenure in Pittsburgh. “I was coming off a tough time in Edmonton. I was pretty low confidence-wise.”
Things would take a turn in his final two seasons with the team. A leg fracture just a couple games into the 2018-19 regular season limited him to just 29 games, and he was unable to fully recover and return to form in 2019-20. He was paired with Jack Johnson and saw his numbers decline, as he put up just three goals and 12 points with a plus/minus of -13 in 46 games last year.
“I know everybody picks on Jack and they have for a long but I think in that pairing, Justin Schultz had a lot more to give,” Rutherford told reporters in August.
In early September, Rutherford announced that the Penguins would “move on” from Schultz, and in October, he hit free agency and signed with Washington, ready to hit reset and driven to prove his worth a a top-4 defenseman with offensive upside.
“I’m really good. I’m training hard. Had obviously a few unfortunate injuries that I couldn’t really do anything about,” Schultz said when he joined the team. “As far as [the talks I've had with Laviolette] and MacLellan, they explained to me where I’d fit in. Joining the offense and trying to play that game with the d-men joining. It was very exciting to hear that.”
And so far, he’s delivered. The 30-year-old has three goals and 22 points through 38 games. He’s the Caps’ second-highest scoring defenseman behind John Carlson, but ultimately he leads the team with 15 primary assists, which also ranks sixth-best among all NHL d-men this season.
REGULATION HERO JUSTIN SCHULTZ! pic.twitter.com/qiAiFhjxcS— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) January 27, 2021
“It’s subtle offense,” Nick Jensen said of Schultz. “It’s not super flashy all the time. He’s very offensively involved. It’s not always right-in-your-face involved, but he’s always finding ways to generate offense... he’s a good skater. He’s able to get up in plays and make things happen.”
Not only has he lived up to expectations on the forecheck, but Laviolette’s liked what he’s seen in his own end.
“He’s probably as advertised,” Laviolette said. “As far as the offense goes, I think that’s what he’s known for, so I think for the most part, he’s done a really good job defensively. That’s what really stands out for me as well is we’ve been able to trust him and use him in just about any situation.”
Off the ice, Schultz has proven to be a solid addition to the dressing room who brings a positive presence, a passion for golf and a good personality.
“He’s right up my alley,” Carlson added. “I think he’s laid back, loves sports. We talk about sports a lot, watching T.V, shooting a breeze.”
Overall, Schultz appears to have regained confidence to succeed but gives a lot of credit to the group around him. That same confidence and compete level will be critical as Washington looks to make a statement in the playoffs and bounce back after a tough and very different 2020 showing.
“Obviously, the leaders they in [Pittsburgh] helped me a lot. It’s pretty similar to here [with the Caps] — they know how to win,” Schultz said.