Justin Schultz (Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Justin Schultz went from being booed on home ice a few months ago to being one victory away from winning his first career Stanley Cup. And he hopes to make his stay in Pittsburgh a more permanent one.
SAN JOSE – Things got so bad for Justin Schultz that he had to set up a fake Twitter account to keep up with the news of the day and read links to stories that interested him. That’s because his real Twitter account was so filled with vitriol and hate that he couldn’t stand looking at it.
So when a player tells you that he doesn’t read anything that’s written about him or that he’s impervious to the criticism, it isn’t always true. Some players can dismiss it, but others take it to heart. One win away from winning the Stanley Cup, Schultz can laugh about it now. But when he played with the Edmonton Oilers, he was hardly living the dream he’d spent so much of his life anticipating.
“It’s not a lot of fun getting booed in front of your home fans,” Schultz said. “It’s pretty tough to enjoy yourself when that’s happening.”
The misery ended in February when the Penguins traded for Schultz at the trade deadline, giving up a third-round pick to get him. At the time, GM Jim Rutherford wanted more speed on his back end, having picked up Trevor Daley two months prior. Since then, Schultz has moved into a more comfortable and far more shielded role as the team’s third-pairing defenseman with Ian Cole. Most pundits wondered how the Penguins defense would hold up against the Sharks in the final and the answer has been, just fine. Schultz has found his comfort level in Pittsburgh, far away from the pressure of hype and expectation that he faced in Edmonton.
To be fair, Schultz was erratic at best with the Oilers. But he also played for five coaches in Edmonton and was probably placed in a role that gave him more pressure and responsibility than he could handle. His miscues were glaring at times and often led to crucial goals against. And with a knowledgeable fan base in Edmonton watching his every move on the ice, there was nowhere for him to hide. It didn’t help that his coach, Todd McLellan was brutally honest about Schultz’s play, describing one of his efforts this way: “His input into the game was negative and it hurt the team.”
If there’s one thing Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has done since coming to the Penguins, it’s instill confidence, particularly in his young players. Kids such as Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust can make plays and risk making mistakes without the fear that their pants are going to be nailed to the bench. It certainly helps a player’s confidence when he knows the coach has his back.
“I’m for sure not gripping the stick as tightly as I used to,” Schultz said. “It really helps when you have the coach’s confidence. They guys in the room have really helped, too. They’re a great group here. Everyone does everything together and there are no cliques.”
Much of Schultz’s problems came from heightened expectations, some of which were formed when he spurned the Anaheim Ducks, who had drafted him in the second round in 2008, and became an unrestricted free agent. He also didn’t so anything to blunt expectations when he was one of the best players in the American League in his rookie season, scoring 48 points in just 34 games with the Oklahoma City Barons. Despite missing 42 games because he joined the Oilers at the end of the lockout, Schultz was named the AHL’s top defenseman in 2012-13. He signed with the Oilers because he thought there would be a chance to establish himself there. But on a struggling team that had no idea what it takes to win, it didn’t take long for Schultz to get sucked up into a losing culture. Despite the pain and stunted development, Schultz has no regrets about signing with the Oilers.
“I loved my teammates and the fans, for the most part,” Schultz said. “It was where I started my career. I scored my first NHL goal at Rexall Place. I don’t sit here and think I made a bad choice.”
And to his credit, Schultz was not a hot mess by the time he got to Pittsburgh. Sure his confidence needed some bolstering, but Cole said he was actually impressed by Schultz’s confidence level. “He wasn’t like a rescue dog you had to retrain or anything,” Cole said. “Sometimes things don’t work out with certain teams for whatever reason. I think (Daley) would say the same thing about Chicago. I think he was a huge pickup for us, a huge asset for us.”
How much of an asset he is for the Penguins will be decided after the season. The Oilers picked up half of Schultz’s remaining salary this past season, but will have to decide whether they want to sign him as a restricted free agent this summer. He has clearly found a good spot and if the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, might be the most unlikely Cup winner aside from Phil Kessel. He would like to keep the arrangement permanent.
“Things are going great here,” Schultz said. “I’m just hoping we can finish this series out and see what happens.”