Return of Justin Schultz could help Penguins strengthen weak point in their game
A little after 11 a.m. Monday, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz stepped on the ice for his first full contact practice since breaking his leg in October.
About a half-hour later, coach Mike Sullivan stopped a drill with a sharp tweet of his whistle and loudly dressed down his team for the way they were handling the puck in the defensive zone.
These two developments could be very much related.
Sullivan hasn’t been pleased with the cleanliness of his team’s breakouts in recent outings, and it just so happens that Schultz’s specialty is that part of the game.
“I just want us to execute better,” Sullivan said, explaining his drill-stopping harangue. “I have higher expectations of our guys. They’re good players. We don’t want hope to be part of our strategy, and that’s what I told them.
“If we’ve got to hope to connect on a pass, we’re better off not making a pass. Sometimes the best play is no play and keeping the puck in the safe part of the ice and not trying to do something that puts us in vulnerable positions. I thought we did a lot of hoping in that particular drill. That was the message.”
In a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, Sullivan felt the Penguins were unable to push back as a two-goal lead began to slip away in the second period because they were spending too much time in the defensive zone.
The stats indicate it’s been an issue all season. The Penguins rank 26th in the league in shot attempts allowed per game.
Some of that can be explained by looking at the pace at which the Penguins play; it’s high. But an ineffective breakout is also partially to blame.
Schultz’s return could help alleviate the problem for two reasons. First, he’s a naturally talented offensive player. Second, it would allow the team to up its total of right-handed defensemen from one to two.
“I think it’s beneficial to have defensemen on their strong sides,” Sullivan said. “When the puck comes around the wall in the offensive zone, it’s a much easier play to make on the forehand when you’re under pressure. Same thing on a neutral-zone counter or a breakout. When you can make the play on your forehand, it makes it a little bit easier, a little bit more efficient.
“When you add a right-handed shot like Schultzy, now you’re adding a guy that has offensive instincts, that is a really good puck mover, that can help us with our transition game in so many different capacities.”
Schultz reported no problems after his first full practice Monday, but he added that he won’t quite be ready to return to the lineup Tuesday night against Carolina.
In addition to the required medical clearances, he needs a little bit of time to develop confidence that his leg will hold up to whatever rigors a regular-season game throws at him.
“If anything, I think it’s just more mental,” Schultz said. “When you’re out for that long with the type of injury I had, there’s a little hurdle you have to get over in your head and be comfortable out there. I thought I was today. Still not completely there, but it’s getting there. It’s positive.”
Sullivan said the coaching staff hadn’t decided whether Schultz will simply slot in with Olli Maatta once he returns or if a further reshuffling of the defense pairs will be in order.
If he does end up with Schultz skating on his right side, Maatta surely won’t complain.
“He’s really good to play with,” Maatta said. “He’s really good at being in the right position and helping you out.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .