Penguins’ Justin Schultz knows a big year could mean a big payday
When you examine the Penguins’ roster, there just isn’t anyone better than Justin Schultz.
Put a stick in his hand, and chances are he’ll bury it.
Just ask his teammates.
“You can see his swing,” Bryan Rust said. “It’s such a smooth swing. It’s good tempo. He’s relaxed out there. It’s kind of how he is on the ice. He doesn’t really seem to feel the pressure very often.”
Said Jake Guentzel: “When you hit as far as he does and as straight as he does, I mean it’s pretty easy when his driver is that good. His iron play is top notch, as well. When you play with him, it’s a treat to watch him, how he hits it, how far he hits it.”
Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin lead the conversation for the team’s best hockey player. Schultz will have to settle for being the Penguins’ best golfer.
Unfortunately, work had an impact on Schultz’s hobby this summer.
A fractured left leg Schultz suffered last October kept him sidelined for the better part of four months during the 2018-19 campaign. During the offseason, his game on the links suffered slightly thanks to the lingering effects of his injury.
“It did at first,” Schultz said. “It was a little tight. But after a bit, it’s all good.”
Considering Schultz and the Penguins were eliminated from the the 2019 postseason in mid-April, he had plenty of time to rehab his swing as well as his weakened leg. He enters training camp fully healthy for the first time in 11 months.
“I had a whole summer of working on it and training my leg to get it back to somewhat 100 percent,” Schultz said. “It feels way better than it did when I came back, that’s for sure.”
While Schultz was able to play the final 25 games of the regular season and post a respectable 11 points (two goals, nine assists), he wasn’t nearly as effective as he was before the injury — by his own critique.
“I was out for four months,” he said. “A pretty major surgery. I didn’t do much for a while so the muscles kind of went away. That was the toughest part was trusting it, I guess.”
What were his biggest impediments recovering from the injury?
“Strength, balance. … Mostly just skating. Having the power to push off that leg or if you’re crossing over or changing directions. Being stable and strong on that leg … it definitely wasn’t 100 percent.
“There was no pain, but it just wasn’t there.”
When Schultz wasn’t there in the lineup, the Penguins missed one of their most potent offensive weapons.
“He’s someone who’s able to play with the puck at such a high pace and make plays quickly,” Rust said. “Not only just easy plays but the hard plays, as well. He’s just so good with the puck and getting up and down the ice, it helps our transition game so much more when he’s in the lineup.”
When the 2019-20 regular season begins, Schultz likely will line up next to Marcus Pettersson on the team’s second defensive duo. They have been paired together throughout training camp and preseason.
“He’s just so solid,” Schultz said of Pettersson. “He’s got such a good stick. He can break up plays so easily. And he’s got good offensive instincts. Moves the puck well. So it’s easy to play with a guy like that. It fits into my game well.
“He does everything well. Can play in any situation. Just a solid, solid (defenseman). He makes it easy to play with.”
Schultz made things easy for his teammates by sparking the Penguins’ first two goals in a 4-2 preseason win against the Detroit Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday.
At 3:20 of the first period, Schultz drove a one-timer from the right point. Despite being shoved to the ice, forward Brandon Tanev deflected the puck past goaltender Jonathan Bernier’s right shoulder.
Only 58 seconds into the second, Schultz fired a shot/pass off the left wall to the crease where Rust deflected behind Bernier.
“I didn’t really do too much,” said a humble Schultz. “Those two guys made great plays to get open and obviously great deflections.”
Similar success throughout this season could lead to a considerable payday for the pending unrestricted free agent. As a puck-moving offensive defenseman with a right-handed shot playing in an era when each of those attributes are at a premium, Schultz admits he is curious about his future next summer.
“I think about it,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, it definitely crosses your mind every now and then. You’re uncertain on what’s going to happen. It’s a huge year. I want to stay here. I want to start strong. Hopefully, we get something done so I don’t have to worry about that.”
But you’ve just got to focus on each game and not look too far ahead.”
Entering the final year of a contract with a salary-cap hit of $5.5 million, Schultz, 29, is in position to command a considerable pay raise. Since the start of September, several defensemen have signed multiyear contracts with ample price tags.
Schultz, who said he has not discussed a potential extension with general manager Jim Rutherford, said he has avoided weighing his attributes against his peers.
“I don’t look,” he said. “I don’t try to compare myself to them and think, ‘Oh, I can get that contract.’ I obviously want a long contract, but it’s hard to get. You’ve got to perform. So it’s a huge year for me.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .