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Penguins defenseman Schultz takes long road to redemption

| Sunday, March 12, 2017, 9:45 p.m.
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Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury celebrate their shootout victory against the Oilers on March 10, 2017, at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

When the NHL lockout ended in January 2013, roster changes in the American Hockey League happened too quickly for then-Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson to offer much more than “good luck” to his Edmonton-bound players, including defenseman Justin Schultz.

“ ‘I won't be seeing you guys here anytime soon,' ” Nelson recalled saying to a group that also included forwards Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. “It was pretty much that.”

When Nelson reconnected with Schultz in Edmonton in 2014 as an assistant to Dallas Eakins — and especially after he ascended to the head coach role following Eakins' firing that December — he was one of the first in the NHL to recognize what parts of Schultz's game ended up lost in translation during the puck-moving defenseman's transition to the sport's highest level.

Perhaps luckily for the Penguins, Nelson never got the chance to resolve the problems with Schultz's development, as he parted ways with Edmonton and joined Detroit's organization in 2015. Schultz consequently lasted only a bit longer with the Oilers, who traded the defenseman to the Penguins for a third-round pick just ahead of the '16 deadline.

Born and raised in British Columbia and later dismissed as a bust by Edmonton and its regional rivals, Schultz has made a long-awaited tour through Western Canada in the past few days. After a stop in Edmonton on Friday and in Vancouver on Saturday, the Penguins headed to Calgary for Monday's game. Schultz returned with no hint of bitterness, though as arguably the Penguins' best defenseman this season and one of the most productive blue liners in the league, he had the opportunity to call out those who doubted him.

“I remember near the end just being pretty down,” Schultz said. “When you don't have confidence, you don't want the puck at all. You're afraid of making a mistake every time you have the puck. That's what it was like near the end. ... I needed a change of scenery, a new environment.”

Or maybe just a coach who better grasped Schultz's strengths and weaknesses. That's what coach Mike Sullivan embodied when he brought Schultz into the Penguins' lineup as a third-pairing, low-leverage defenseman last spring.

Nelson followed a similar formula during his 46 games as Edmonton's coach. While Schultz's minutes remained higher in the spring of 2015 than in '16, the defenseman's situational deployment became offense-friendly.

During 950-plus minutes of five-on-five ice time under Nelson, 22.31 percent of Schultz's shifts that involved a faceoff start began in the defensive zone and 37.56 percent came in the offensive zone, according to Corsica.hockey. He consequently served as a relative bright spot on a still-poor Edmonton blue line. With Schultz on the ice, the Oilers narrowly were outscored (49-45) and out-shot (926-921). With him on the bench, Edmonton gave up almost twice as many five-on-five goals as it scored (75-39) and allowed 25 percent more shot attempts than it generated (1,607-1,276).

Both before and after Nelson's stint as Edmonton's coach, Schultz served a top-pair role and handled more defensive-zone faceoff starts than offensive-zone ones. His ability to dictate play suffered. His defensive effectiveness relative to teammates disappeared.

“You've got to find a way to build that confidence within the team system,” said Nelson, coach of Detroit's AHL affiliate. “That's one of the things I thought that I got out of him when I was with Edmonton. He was having fun because he was playing well.

“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.”

Hindsight made that apparent. But even Schultz's coach at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves, considered the defenseman full of top-four potential by the time he left the Badgers after a junior season in which he tallied 44 points in 37 games.

Eaves only had to look elsewhere on his roster around Schultz's career at Wisconsin to compare and contrast. When Schultz tallied 22 points in 43 games as a freshman, he did it on a team that also included upperclassmen and future NHL regulars Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner and Brendan Smith.

“He just fit right in with that group, especially from the fact that he could skate,” said Eaves, who first became smitten with Schultz, a second-round draft pick in 2008 who instead reached the NHL via college free agency, as a recruit when he witnessed the defenseman's mobility. “You'd have to have poor vision to not see that this kid had stuff you don't teach.

“I expected him to have a little bit more success or this kind of success early in his career, but it's such a big step going from college to pro, especially as a defenseman. And they were such a young group in Edmonton. They were all kind of learning on the job. I think what happened was Justin lost some of his confidence. He was trying to learn the game without the puck at that level, and that's not an easy thing to do.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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