It took perhaps a year longer than it should have, but the Justin Schultz era in Edmonton has finally come to a close.
The oft-maligned defender was shipped to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a 2016 third-round pick on Saturday, concluding a four-season run with the Oilers in which the 25-year-old went from the savior of Edmonton’s blue line to the scapegoat for their persistant mediocrity.
While Schultz had his moments during his early days in Edmonton – most notably in 2012-13 when he posted 27 points during the lockout-shortened 48-game season – the partnership between him and the club turned downright toxic at the end.
Oilers head coach Todd McLellan said this after a 4-1 loss to Ottawa:
“There are some [players] who should be embarrassed when they leave. We’re probably talking about two or three guys in particular — one, maybe — and he should be. A pretty disappointing night for him as an individual and it affected the team.”
If there was ever an indication of how distant the relationship between organization and player became in the case of Justin Schultz, that quote right there is it. There’s no denying that Schultz failed to live up to expectations as an Oiler, but his play as of late went far beyond that.
That being the case, moving him off of Edmonton’s roster is undeniably addition by subtraction. Schultz ranked last on the Oilers with a plus-minus mark of minus-22, and also tied for last-place among all Oilers defenders in terms of the most goals-against per 60 minutes (3.3). He also ranked last among Oilers defenders in terms of goals-against per 60 minutes while on the powerplay (2.3).
Now that he’s out of Oilers colors, the team can continue on the path they began during the two games Schultz was scratched – a stretch that saw them play two fine defensive games, holding the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks to only two goals apiece (after giving up a combined 17 goals in their previous four contests).
The fact that Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli was somehow able to swing a third-round pick for Schultz is significant as well. If nothing else, the Oilers management team will be able to gamble on a defensive prospect with said pick, which will likely net them a player who can do more for them than Schultz did during his recent seasons in Edmonton.
For Pittsburgh, the formula is clear – they’re gambling on Schultz thriving on a team with an entirely different culture, and one that will ask him to play a much much smaller role.
That last point is key, as it’s the issue of role that seemed to derail Schultz’s NHL career from the start. Had he taken the path initially laid out for him and joined the Anaheim Ducks after they drafted him 43rd-overall in 2008, he could’ve eased his way into an expanding role on the Ducks’ blue line, getting valuable mentorship from their veteran defenders.
Instead, Schultz was shouldered with ridiculously high expectations from the get-go. He was not simply a marquee acquisition, but the future No. 1 defenseman for a team destined for dynasty talk. Under that magnifying glass, even the normal highs and lows that come with developing as a young defender in the NHL would be overblown. And that is precisely what happened.
Schultz admitted as much to Sportsnet just a few months ago, saying the following of his spotlighted entrance into the league:
“It was a lot to take in, especially coming into the league in a Canadian market. But … I don’t think it has any effect on me today,” he said of that high-profile process.
It didn’t raise the bar to a level that has been difficult to get to?
“Well, it might have done that. A little too high of expectations maybe,” he mused. “But, there’s not much you can do. It’s the world we live in with the media these days.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of moving Schultz out of Edmonton is simply the fact that the organization can finally move on. It was a fairly bizarre saga to begin with – considering how Schultz wound up on the Oilers after shunning the club that drafted him – and it’s been strange ever since, as the question has devolved from whether or not Schultz is a true No. 1 defenseman to whether or not he’s even a true NHL defenseman.
With his tenure a decided failure in Alberta, Edmonton can now return to a more reliable path, focusing on the high-end prospects they earned through the draft, namely Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom. Schultz’s prescence as the leader of the defensive corps, as well as the team’s reliance on his ability to provide offense on the power play, prevented either of these prospects from fully taking the reins of the team’s blue line. With Schultz out of the picture, the opportunity is now there.
It’s a significant step forward for the Oilers, and, more importantly, the deal is a signal from Chiarelli that the team’s delusions regarding their defensive core are quickly coming to an end.