The New Jersey Devils are heading into the off-season without the first overall pick and with just one lottery pick in the NHL Draft. Thanks to some bad luck with falling one selection due to the draft lottery and the disappointing play of John Hynes’ Predators, the Devils now see themselves in worse shape than they probably imagined themselves a couple months ago. In order to ensure a return to competitiveness in the league over the next few years, the Devils will need to either acquire valuable players by trade or free agency. With the flat salary cap for the next season, the Devils will also have an advantage on teams closer to that cap in regards to fitting their salaries under it.
Justin Schultz, whom the Pittsburgh Penguins signed to a three year, $16.5 million contract after the 2016-17 season, will be an unrestricted free agent when the free agency period begins. Justin Schultz, coming off of three seasons in which he has missed no fewer than 19 games each (and one in which he missed 53), is unlikely to be worth whatever contract follows his three-year Penguins deal. According to Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool, Justin Schultz has a predicted term of three years, and a predicted cap hit of $3.906 million. Schultz turned 30 years old on July 6, so this might be an upper end of a contract he can get in free agency - but we’ve seen a few over-payments for defensemen in free agency in recent years - and Justin Schultz could be one of those guys (again) soon. Therefore, this is why the Devils should not sign Justin Schultz in free agency this off-season.
An Overview of Schultz’s Career
As you can see from Hockey-Reference, Justin Schultz hit his peak when he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Pittsburgh Penguins. While being forced into top minutes on really bad Oilers teams without better options, Schultz struggled with defense immensely in his early career, but had an offensive output that yet made him an intriguing and potentially valuable player. After being traded, Schultz had decent point production while getting peanut minutes from the Penguins in his first partial season with them while helping them win a Stanley Cup as one of the seven defensemen who played 15 or more games in the playoffs: averaging the least minutes among them. As the Devils would go on to sign Ben Lovejoy that off-season, the Penguins kept Schultz on a one-year, $1.4 million “prove-it” deal, which Schultz made great use of. His 2016-17 campaign saw Schultz lead all Penguins defensemen in goals and assists (while Letang only played 41 games). As Letang missed those playoffs, Schultz led the Penguins defensemen with 13 points in 21 games as the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups. As a result, Justin Schultz earned his three-year contract with a yearly cap hit of $5.5 million.
Schultz’s Performance Under His Most Recent Contract
From Evolving-Hockey, here’s Justin Schultz’s RAPM chart from 2017-2020 - the span of his three year contract.
When Justin Schultz played his first full season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was an impact player on both ends of the ice - and 2016-17 was Schultz’s only season with positive xGA/60 and CA/60 impacts on his team. Since then, he has returned to being a poor defender, while not having nearly as good an offensive output as he had from the beginning of his career to the 2016-17 season. His offensive output has even declined over the last three seasons. These days, he does not help on either end of the ice. From HockeyViz, here’s Justin Schultz’s isolated impact summary for the 2019-20 season.
Justin Schultz does not add the type of offense that the New Jersey Devils need to boost their scoring. When Schultz is on the ice, the Penguins got fewer shots from the slot and the area immediately surrounding it while getting more shots than usual from the peripheries of the offensive zone. The Penguins also drew significantly fewer penalties while performing significantly worse on the power play with far fewer shots from right in front of the net. His defense in 2019-20, for what it’s worth, was not unworkable - but it was still below average and would probably only worsen on a Devils team without the star players Pittsburgh relies on. From Evolving-Hockey, here’s Schultz’s RAPM in the 2019-20 season alone.
Justin Schultz’s once-great offensive impacts have now been reduced to average-at-best, if not below average, while his defense remains nothing to write home about. As an offensive defenseman who has lost his production and remains unhelpful on defense, it is unlikely that going after Schultz would be a good move for the New Jersey Devils. With Damon Severson and P.K. Subban, the Devils have top four right-handed defenseman I would already consider better options than Justin Schultz. At most, Justin Schultz could offer the Devils a decent third pairing option - but I doubt that Schultz will sign a one-year “prove-it” deal with anything less than a top team in the league coming off of playing second-pairing minutes for the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, there are reasons to believe even a more favorable-than-expected contract would disappoint the New Jersey Devils.
Justin Schultz Has Become a Poor Shooter
HockeyViz has recently added a new visualization to their site - shooting maps for players broken down by shot type. It just so happens that Justin Schultz’s shot map from his most recent season is not too pretty. This is disappointing, as Schultz had more than 10 goals twice in his career before - and had a combined shooting percentage of 9.8% his first two seasons in the league. By the time he approached 30 years old, Schultz’ shot had lost its value.
With just three goals in 48 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019-20, Justin Schultz would have only outscored Mirco Mueller and Andy Greene among defensemen who suited up for more than 48 games for the Devils this season. He would be a downgrade as an offensive right-defenseman from Sami Vatanen, who had five goals and 18 assists in 47 games for the Devils. And while his assist numbers are comparable to P.K. Subban, Subban’s seven goals are a tally unlikely to be matched by a 30-year old Justin Schultz. Schultz used to be a good shooter for a defenseman - and did not just rely on point shots for his goals. Since then, Schultz has been unable to get as many shots closer to the net in addition to his slap shot becoming ineffectual. His shot would therefore provide little-to-no value for the New Jersey Devils.
Justin Schultz Has a Recent Injury History
While making over $5 million per year, Justin Schultz missed a lot of games in his three-year contract. Combined, Schultz played 138 games and missed 95 for the Pittsburgh Penguins. His most severe injury came in the 2018-19 season, in which he only played 29 games. In October, 2018, Justin Schultz had surgery to repair a fracture in his left leg after sustaining the injury being taken down by Tomas Plekanec. He continued to have flare-ups of a “lower-body injury” in November this season. Given the number of games that were missed by Schultz over the past three seasons, I do not think that signing Schultz would do the Devils much good even if the contract is reasonable. The Devils just had an oft-injured right-handed defenseman in Sami Vatanen - and now they need to find a more reliable fixture for their defense. Justin Schultz is certainly not a reliable player given his recent injuries and the fact that he is now in his 30s.
Given the decline in Justin Schultz’s production over the past three years in combination with the injury history of Schultz over the same span, I would not recommend that the Devils even entertain signing Justin Schultz. If he is signed by any team to a multi-year deal, it will likely be an over-payment as his most recent contract was. And even if he is signed to a one-year deal, the Devils would be better served finding a younger, more promising long-term option or a veteran who can be trusted to be on the ice for most of the season and provide more consistent (and better) play. By this point of his career, Justin Schultz is no longer a valuable shooter, does not better the power play, and continues to be below average and outright bad at times in his own zone. Given the inadequacies with the defensive play of the Devils, he is unlikely to be of any help to the team’s issues as a third-pairing option and should not be signed.
What do you think about Justin Schultz? Do you think he will re-sign with the Penguins or go to a new team? How would you feel if the Devils signed him? Do you have a more favorable opinion on him than I do? Or do you feel similarly? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.