One of the most glaring weaknesses on the Oilers this past season, and the year prior, has been the blueline. Both seasons under MacTavish have started and ended without a complete, competitive, NHL caliber defense core.
One member of the Oilers defence who has taken a lot of flak, for good reason, has been young Justin Schultz.
As you recall, Schultz leveraged an existing clause in his contract with Anaheim to leave the Ducks, who had drafted him 42nd overall in the 2009 draft, to become an unrestricted free agent, coming straight out of college. A number of teams expressed interest, with the Oilers being his chosen destination.
If you were his agent, you saw the obvious need on defence in Edmonton, and recognized the ample opportunity available for Schultz in terms of ice time and linemates up front. In his three seasons with the Oilers, he has been given an absurd amount of ice time for a prospect, spending the vast majority of time with the high end talent up front. He’s been labelled as an offensive-defenceman since college, so the Oilers have tried their best to put him in a position to succeed.
Unfortunately, things just haven’t gone well for Schultz. Despite the ice time, over the years and the offensive zone starts, especially this year, Schultz has struggled to produce both in terms of points and possession (Source: War on Ice).
|Points per 60||0.82||0.89||0.77|
|% of Offensive Zone Starts||47.95%||45.17%||62.85%|
|Corsi For %||42.99%||41.69%||49.24%|
|Corsi For per 60||47.11||45.33||54.01|
|Corsi Against per 60||62.47||63.42||55.69|
|Shots For %||42.05%||42.17%||50.01%|
It’s clear that the Oilers rushed Schultz into the NHL, giving him top minutes in his first three seasons but with little support around him, unlike other comparable college players. He’s an excellent skater and can move the puck well, especially in the offensive zone. But his defensive lapses and poor passing out of his own zone are a sign of inexperience and undeveloped skill. Ideally, he should be in the minors working out these things, but instead he’s being paid, and paid quite well, to learn the position at the NHL level.
Having said that, we have to consider that this defencemen is only 24. We know it takes longer to learn this position, with most hitting their primes much later than say a winger or a centerman.
So what I did was take a look at the top 10 defencemen by zone starts (minimum 250 mins played) just to see if there are comparables to Schultz. The idea being that maybe there were others that had similar numbers as Schultz despite the high percentage of offensive zone starts. And maybe they improved later on or teams found a way to get more out of the player. Note: Corsi is based on Score adjusted formula.
|2014/2015 (Defencemen, 5v5)|
|2013/2014 (Defencemen, 5v5)|
|2012/2013 (Defencemen, 5v5)|
Well, what we see here is that if you’re starting that much in the offensive zone, you SHOULD have a respectable Corsi For % and a decent shot share. And if you don’t…well, that’s a bad sign. Schultz stands out, along with players like Dennis Wideman, as the few that got poor results despite the favorable minutes. Note: I did go back to 2006 and got similar findings.
The Oilers management group appears to be enamored with young Schultz, handing him a $3.75M contract last summer, while pushing an established defencemen like Jeff Petry out of the organization. If this management group, including the new members on board, feel that Schultz is part of the plan’s moving forward, they’ll have to do a few things.
- Manage the expectations of the player by choosing actions and words carefully. Avoid Norris trophy references and label Schultz for what he is: a prospect with second pairing capabilities and a good powerplay option. Reduce his minutes and deploy more experienced players in the offensive zone. Which leads to point 2…
- Get legit, NHL defencemen to take on the top minutes. These players have to be in their late 20’s with at least 300 NHL games played. Offensive zone starts are hard to come by, so when you’re there, have your best available option out there. At the top of my list would be Andrej Sekera. And the more I read about him, I’m learning more about his old defensive partner in Carolina, Justin Faulk (we got McDavid, so hey, why not try to land both of them?). An experienced defenceman could also partner with Schultz, and stabilize the play when Schultz is joining the rush.
- Improve the goaltending and reduce the amount of time the team is trailing. In a situation where a team is pressing for a goal, players like Schultz are relied on heavily. Hopefully Scrivens can bounce back from a pitiful season, but I’d bring in a Cam Talbot type to stabilize the netminding.
Schultz has a lot of work to do this summer in terms of his defensive work, especially in his own zone. There were a few too many times he looked lost, often chasing forwards from the front of the net to the corner, leaving a passing lane wide open. Offensively, he created chances, but he was often caught up ice, allowing a 2-on-1 going the other way.
It’s unfortunate that Schultz has transitioned from being a prospect to being more of a project for the Oilers. The good news is, teams can have an offensive defenceman on their roster, even with defensive flaws. They just have to make sure the rest of the defensive roster is well built with a legitimate number one pairing. The Oilers have an opportunity to resurrect a young player’s career, but only if they can make the right moves this summer.