Unlocking Justin Schultz’s confidence

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Getty Images

Arguably no storyline in the Penguins’ 2016-17 season continues to move in an uplifting direction more than the establishment of Justin Schultz as a key piece of the defensive corps.

Slightly more than a year ago, the Penguins acquired Schultz from Edmonton for a third-round pick, and even the organization at that time portrayed the move as one intended to bolster depth, not alter the blueline hierarchy. Even entering training camp, questions lingered about whether Derrick Pouliot and his commitment to offseason training could knock Schultz back into a No. 7 role.

Schultz’s reputation remained that of a sheltered third-pair defenseman with the Penguins until a couple months ago, when it became clear that the former Oiler actually fueled much of the team’s success this season, even with Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley in varying stages of wellness.

While the Penguins deserve considerable credit for steering Schultz back toward the high ceiling he had when he finished his career at Wisconsin, what they did actually followed a blueprint drawn up by one of the coaches in Edmonton who knew Schultz best, Todd Nelson. Check the zone-start stats in that story to see just how similarly Schultz’s usage under Nelson compared to what coach Mike Sullivan did last spring and this past fall.

Nelson first dealt with Schultz during the 2012-13 lockout as the coach of the American Hockey League’s Oklahoma City Barons. Schultz tallied 48 points in 34 games under Nelson’s supervision, and when NHL play resumed in January of 2013, no doubt existed about him slotting into Edmonton’s top six.

After he joined Edmonton’s staff as an assistant in 2014 and eventually replaced coach Dallas Eakins on an interim basis midway through the 2014-15 season, Nelson, a puck-moving defenseman in his playing career, came as close as any bench boss within that organization to utilizing Schultz correctly. But Edmonton ultimately went in a different direction for its coach in 2015-16, and Nelson left the organization.

Below are a series of comments from Nelson, who now coaches Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.

On Schultz’s transition from college and AHL star to NHL healthy scratch/scapegoat

He pretty much had his way in Oklahoma City offensively. The only parts of his game that he really had to work on were battling in the corners and also the net front. His offensive skills were exceptional at that level. When he graduated to Edmonton, some of those things he had to work on were exposed, per se. That’s something he had to learn over the years to work on. Looking at him now, he’s come a long way from that person in Edmonton.”

“When he was in Oklahoma City, he was the go-to guy. Then when he went up to Edmonton, they put him in that role, and it probably wasn’t really fair to him just because Edmonton wasn’t as strong at that time as Pittsburgh is now. So he was playing as a No. 1-2 defenseman, when in reality, on a better hockey team, he would’ve been a No. 5-6 and more of a power play guy. … Over time, he matured into a better two-way defenseman, and now what you’re seeing is just a mature Justin Schultz who understands the game a lot better and is slotted where he should be versus being thrown into a (tough) situation. And that’s not Edmonton’s fault by any stretch. They just didn’t have as much talent at the time.”

On engaging in discussions with Schultz about his strengths and weaknesses

Justin, when you talk to him, he’s a pretty quiet individual. Or at least around me as a coach, anyways. Sometimes it was hard to get him to open up. That’s just his personality. If you crack a joke, obviously he laughs at it and gets it. But Justin was the type of player when I had him that you had to really dig deep to get a two-way conversation, and it was hard to get a read on.

“As a coach, I had to go to him. Sometimes players come to me. It’s just part of their personality. With Justin, it was one of those things where I had to go to him and open up the discussion. Once we started talking, we got a pretty good common ground of what we both wanted to see happen with his play moving forward.”

On encouraging Schultz to improve as a net-front and along-the-wall defenseman

“When he was at OKC, it wasn’t much of a factor, but when I was with Edmonton, that was one of the things that we talked about, getting stronger physically. But also (we talked) about having the will to battle in the corners and the net front, having a bit of a nasty streak inside of him. Over time, he’s developed that healthy balance of battling in front of the net and in the corners and feeling comfortable with those situations.”

On Schultz’s willingness to adapt and knowing when to push the right buttons

He’s a very coachable person. I had a great relationship with him, and I really enjoyed coaching him. He wasn’t stubborn by any stretch of the imagination. Like any player you develop, you have to hit them with repetition and keep on reminding them about the right way to play. It takes time. Some players get it quicker than others.”

“If you’re an offensive defenseman like Justin and you’re in a scoring slump, history shows that if you try to push too hard or try to rectify it right away, it’s like putting gasoline on a fire. That’s when you have to focus on the little parts of the game and keep things simple. The offense will take care of itself eventually.”