Penguins’ defense is hurting heading into a scary stretch

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Of all the storylines that surrounded the Pittsburgh Penguins repeating as champions last season, it might have been lost on most just how resurgent Justin Schultz has been since joining Pittsburgh.

It’s easy to forget that he was a legit reclamation project when the Penguins picked him up in a low-risk trade. The returns were nice almost from the get-go, but even then, consider this: Schultz generated an impressive 51 points in 2016-17.

For some perspective, that tied Torey Krug for the seventh-best output among NHL defensemen, and he was right up there with every blueliner outside of the Norris Trophy finalists, a group of guys who may secretly be aliens in Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Victor Hedman.

(Those three are almost suspiciously good. Just saying, gang.)

Anyway, with all the justifiable “Penguins won a Cup even with Kris Letang out” comments, it was often lost just how big a role Schultz played, not to mention that such a group was pretty beaten-down even among guys who managed to suit up.

So, the good news is that the Penguins have grown accustomed to dealing with injuries. It’s been something they’ve had to roll with well before Mike Sullivan let them unleash their speed and skill in delightful ways.

On the other hand, this season will provide a real test of the effects of attrition; just because you pushed that boulder up the hill many times doesn’t mean you’ll do it every time.

Schultz was placed on IR today due to a concussion, and with Matt Hunwick also day-to-day, this group is looking a little thin on the blueline. As refreshing as it is to see former Toronto Maple Leafs fans debate topic Frank Corrado back in the NHL, the Penguins would likely not prefer this route. It’s probably worth noting that guys like Ian Cole might be feeling a little extra sore, too.

Speaking of routes, the Penguins must brave a threatening set of pot holes starting this weekend. Take a gander at a foreboding schedule that might make them miss supporting cast characters such as Schultz:

Thu, Oct 26 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 28 @ Minnesota
Sun, Oct 29 @ Winnipeg
Wed, Nov 1 @ Edmonton
Thu, Nov 2 @ Calgary
Sat, Nov 4 @ Vancouver
Tue, Nov 7 vs Arizona
Fri, Nov 10 @ Washington
Sat, Nov 11 @ Nashville

So, the Penguins begin at home tonight, but the Jets aren’t exactly the squad you’d pencil in an automatic W against. (Aside: you never know when offenses will go cold for a night, but on paper that seems as fun to watch as it will be threatening for both defenses, eh?)

As you can see, the weekend begins a run where they’ll face five road games in a row and seven of eight away from home. There’s at least a break between this weekend’s back-to-back and the following three-game set, but that’s still three back-to-backs between today and Nov. 11. That last back-to-back also features the teams that are licking their chops the most for revenge against the Penguins in the Capitals and Predators.

They probably won’t take it easy on that road-weary crew, then.

Now, this isn’t to say that the 6-3-1 defending champs are just going to crater. Still, this might be one of those times where they wobble a bit (picture them suffering in the winter like those surreal moments in “March of the Penguins”), so Penguins fans shouldn’t get too upset if there’s a lull in the making.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.