With growth of Schultz, a ‘tough call’ looms for Penguins

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Sunday against Buffalo, Justin Schultz picked up his 11th goal and 33rd assist of the season.

With 44 points, the 26-year-old trails only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and Duncan Keith in the scoring race among NHL defensemen.

To say the least, that is some fine company to be keeping.

Schultz has seen his career turn on a dime since being traded to Pittsburgh from Edmonton last season. He won a Stanley Cup in June, and now he’s become a “priority” for the Penguins to re-sign this summer.

“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t get traded,” Schultz told NHL.com recently. “Maybe I’m still there. My confidence was at an all-time low and I needed a change of scenery. I’ve got nothing against Edmonton at all. I enjoyed my time there. It was tough to get traded. I had a lot of good friends there, met a lot of people. But it was time for a change of scenery and it worked out well.”

Schultz’s play may also have changed the Penguins’ plans for the upcoming expansion draft. Obviously, they’re going to protect Kris Letang. And protecting Brian Dumoulin seems an obvious choice too. That means if Schultz is to be protected as well, they’d either have to trade Olli Maatta, leave Maatta exposed, or protect only four forwards (as opposed to seven).

“That’s a tough call,” GM Jim Rutherford said last month, per the Post-Gazette. “We have a bunch of good players at forward, and a bunch on defense. That’s something we won’t decide until after the year.”

Maatta has not played since Feb. 16 due to a hand injury. The 22-year-old has just one goal and six assists in 54 games this season.

A first-round draft pick in 2012, Maatta has struggled to build on the promise he showed as a rookie in 2013-14. He has a $4.1 million cap hit through 2021-22.

Related: The Penguins are playing Schultz to his strengths