Penguins Predictions: How long will Justin Schultz stay in black and gold? | TribLIVE.com
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Jonathan Bombulie

After playing without Justin Schultz for four months after he broke his leg in the fourth game of the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins should have a pretty good idea by now of how integral the 29-year-old offensive defenseman is to their success.

Results, though, are inconclusive.

On paper, he looks like precisely the kind of puck-moving defenseman they need to make their offensive attack flourish.

And the Penguins fared better when Schultz was on the ice last season. They had a .655 winning percentage with him (16-7-6) and a .585 winning percentage without him (28-19-6).

But that looks an awful lot like correlation rather than causation. Schultz’s shot-attempt numbers were in the red when he returned from injury, looking more like his stat line from his Edmonton years than his Penguins days.

He admitted he wasn’t exactly on top of his game down the stretch.

“It was tough,” Schultz said in April. “That was a big part of the season. Teams are gearing up for their playoff runs and I’m basically hopping in there, my first game. It was hard.”

It’s a hard riddle to solve, and the clock is ticking.

Schultz is entering the final year of a three-year contract that pays him $5.5 million annually.

The Penguins will be facing another cap crunch next summer, as goalie Matt Murray and forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Jared McCann, among others, will be in line for new deals.

Over the next few months, the Penguins will have to decide whether Schultz is part of their future or their past.

THE QUESTION

When will Justin Schultz play his last game in a Penguins uniform?

MULTIPLE CHOICE

A. He’ll be traded during the season.

Four of the 18 skaters on the ice for the Penguins on opening night last season were headed for unrestricted free agency in July. Matt Cullen retired. Carl Hagelin, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan were traded before March. It’s general manager Jim Rutherford’s M.O. While looking to make in-season upgrades, he often uses players in their walk years as bait.

B. He’ll walk in free agency next summer.

Top-four right-handed defensemen who can move the puck are rare commodities in the NHL. Schultz, therefore, will probably command a salary next summer that doesn’t fit into the Penguins’ plans. The team, however, is still trying to compete for a championship right now. The chances they’ll be able to find a suitable replacement in trade are very slim. It’s much harder than finding a comparable left wing to replace Hagelin or a bottom-six center to replace an ineffective Brassard. Their best bet is to keep Schultz, swallow hard and let him go in July.

C. The Penguins will re-sign him.

Schultz has never been one to pass up an opportunity at a bigger contract in his career, but there remains at least a remote possibility that he’ll give the Penguins a reasonable rate for one important reason: He really does have it good with the Penguins. His career was going nowhere in Edmonton. After being traded to the Penguins, he settled into a second-pair role where he is asked to play to his strengths in a system that meshes well with his game. There’s danger in leaving the nest.

THE PREDICTION

A. He’ll be traded during the season.

There’s a decent chance the offseason moves the Penguins made will have a positive effect at the end of the day, but is there anyone who thinks there won’t be some rough waters along the way? When storm clouds roll in, the obvious segment of the roster for Rutherford to look at will be his defense, and the obvious piece to move is a talented offensive player in the final year of his contract.

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

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