Even though it has not really been noticed in the standings as the team continues to win, Kris Letang‘s recent absence has been a pretty significant issue at times for the Pittsburgh Penguins defense.
In the five games since he has been sidelined the team has given up an average of three goals and is allowing more than 34 shots on goal per game. Given the minutes Letang plays and the impact he makes when he is on the ice due to his game-breaking ability to move the puck out of danger and join the rush, it should not be a shock to see the defense struggle without him in there.
One area where the team has not really struggled in his absence has been on the power play.
After their 1-for-2 performance in Philadelphia on Saturday night, that unit has been 5-for-16 in those five games without Letang.
Justin Schultz, his primary replacement working the point, deserves some of the credit for that 30.1 percent success rate even if it hasn’t resulted in a huge jump in point production for the defenseman himself.
He has been on the ice for each of the power play goals in those games and has been a key cog in the units overall success.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan recently credited Schultz’s willingness to take shots when he has the opportunity and not always defer to the superstar talent up front in an effort to force the puck to them.
“Sometimes, when we put guys on our first power-play unit, there’s always a tendency to try to want to get the puck to (Sidney) Crosby or (Evgeni) Malkin or (Phil) Kessel when sometimes the right play is to put the puck on the net,” said Sullivan, via Bill West of the Tribune Review.
“I think Justin isn’t fazed. When he gets back there, if he sees a lane to the net, it’s going to the net.”
When you look at the numbers, it is not hard to see what Sullivan is talking about.
In what is an admittedly small sampling of data this season, Schultz is averaging more than 27 shot attempts per 60 minutes of power play time. That is a pretty significant number. It also helps that he has a similar skillset to Letang in the offensive zone (though, not quite to the same level).
Here is Penguins captain Sidney Crosby describing what Schultz brings to the unit after a recent win over the New York Islanders.
“He’s a great skater so he can skate us out of trouble,” said Crosby.
“On the power play he has a great shot, he is really mobile on the top, he can move across the top and find shooting lanes. He is able to get up in the play and recover because of his skating ability. His skating allows him to do a lot for us.”
Since being acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline a year ago Schultz’s career has really started to turn around after a disappointing experience in Edmonton.
When Schultz first arrived in the NHL with the Oilers he was thrown into an impossible situation while carrying around enormous expectations to eventually be a top-pairing player.
When he struggled and failed to meet those expectations, he became a focal point for criticism and was mostly viewed as the No. 1 symptom of Edmonton’s overall issues defensively.
His ability to play in the offensive zone has never been in question. It’s at the other end of the ice where he sometimes gets into trouble. He is not a perfect player, and if you ask him to be a 25-minute per night, top-pairing defender, some of those shortcomings are going to be exposed.
In Pittsburgh, he has not had to be that. The Penguins have been able to put him into situations where he can play to his strengths and isn’t asked to be something he is not.
The results are paying off for both him and the team.