The Penguins are playing Schultz to his strengths

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On Jan. 20, 2013, Justin Schultz made his NHL debut and played 20:52 for the Edmonton Oilers.

By his third game, his ice time was up to 26:51, the most on the team.

In hindsight, it was too much, too soon, and with way too little structure and support. In February, the offensive defenseman — the same one that former Oilers GM Craig MacTavish once said had “Norris Trophy potential” — was traded to Pittsburgh for a measly third-round draft pick.

Still just 25, Schultz is currently in a bottom-pairing role for the Penguins. He replaced Olli Maatta in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. In Game 3, he registered an assist on Sidney Crosby‘s power-play goal, but barely skated 10 minutes at even strength.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said the goal with Schultz has been to put him in positions where he can succeed.

“We like to see our players for what they can do and not what they can’t do,” said Sullivan. “It’s our responsibility to try to put them in situations where they can play to their strengths. And all of our guys have different strengths, and that’s what makes good teams good, I think.

“Justin’s a guy that, when we acquired him, we thought he could help us play the identity or the type of game that we want to play. He’s a very good puck mover. He has good offensive instincts. He has good mobility. He can really shoot the puck. And so we’ve tried to put him in positions where he can play to those strengths, and he’s done a real good job for us. He doesn’t try to do too much. He plays within himself.”

Looking back on the summer of 2012, it may have been better for Schultz to pick a more established team, one that wasn’t so bereft of quality defensemen, one that didn’t really need him. The supposedly up-and-coming Oilers wooed Schultz, then a highly sought-after college free agent, with calls from Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. When he signed, he insisted he was never guaranteed ice time, but the top-four opportunity in Edmonton was obvious. 

Of course, there’s no sense in dwelling on the past. Schultz has been given a fresh start in Pittsburgh, and it appears he’s making the best of it.

“We’ve tried to offer him feedback from what we see or what our expectations are in trying to define his role with our group, and I think he’s embraced that with our team,” said Sullivan. “So when we do put him in the lineup, we know what we’re getting. We know how we think he can help us win.”