I haven’t said a lot about Justin Schultz over the past two seasons, mostly because when it comes to young players, I tend to think that there’s not a lot of point in being hypercritical of them. The best league in the world is a considerable leap up from the WCHA and if a guy’s struggling, there’s not much to be gained in burying the guy while he tries to make the adjustment to the NHL.
That being said, it’s been a painful adjustment. To me, there’s no question as to who is the Oilers’ best defenceman – Jeff Petry. Here’s what the numbers for Petry and Schultz at 5v5 over the past two years look like if you line them up:
Let me put that into words. Over the past two seasons, the Oilers have generated more shots and allowed fewer shots when Jeff Petry is on the ice than they have when Justin Schultz is on the ice. They’ve scored more goals and allowed fewer goals when Jeff Petry is on the ice than they have when Justin Schultz is on the ice. No matter how you slice it, they’ve done better with Petry on the ice and it’s by a substantial margin. Unless someone has some argument that I can’t imagine, Petry’s their best defenceman at 5v5.
Just as an aside, a word about “offensive” defencemen. The Oilers have scored about 4% more with Petry on the ice at 5v5 over the past two seasons than they have with Schultz on the ice – 2.19 GF/60 to 2.10 GF/60. This is despite a slight on-ice shooting percentage edge for Schultz. Schultz has about a 25% edge on Petry in terms of points – 0.85 P/60 to 0.64 P/60. Who’s the better offensive defenceman?
To me, the answer’s obvious: Jeff Petry. Points aren’t offence; goals for are offence. The Oilers get more goals for when Petry’s on the ice than they do when Justin’s out there, not because of Petry’s offensive prowess but because they spend less time in the defensive zone, as reflected by the fact that they get more shots and allow fewer. The NHL’s method of crediting offence to players doesn’t capture this.
Anyway, back to my point. I was curious about how the Oilers were using Schultz and Petry in terms of 5v5 TOI so, after the Buffalo game, I made a little rolling ten game graph of their 5v5 TOI/G in games in which they both played.
Petry had a couple of games that he left early, so I re-did the graph with just games in which they both played at least ten minutes.
The same thing shows up – Schultz’s ice time spikes past Petry’s, although a little later on. It looks like after the Oilers 27th game of the year, a 3-2 loss in Anaheim, the coaches decided to pour ice time on Schultz. Up to that point, Petry had played 426.1 5v5 minutes in games that he and Schultz had played at least ten minutes; Schultz was at 407.7 5v5 minutes. Since that point, Schultz has played 679.3 5v5 minutes and Petry has played 608.3 minutes in games in which they’ve both played 10 minutes.
What’s odd about this is that Schultz has basically been getting his lunch fed to him since he started getting loaded up with minutes. It hasn’t entirely shown up in terms of the GF/GA but they still do worse with him on the ice than Petry. The Corsi% has just been abysmal.
I wonder whether it’s a coincidence that Schultz’ ice time jumped when it did. You could construct a pretty reasonable argument for it on the grounds that, with the season lost, it’s development time and Schultz needs as many reps as you can possibly give him.
What’s possibly more difficult to justify is planning on him heading into next year. He hasn’t done particularly well with the increased workload – he’s got a 41.3% Corsi% since the big bump in TOI. The Oilers have 45.1% of the goals with him on the ice in that time. Petry’s got a 47.2% Corsi% since then, with the Oilers having been outscored 25-24 with him on the ice. So it’s the same thing we’ve seen throughout the two years that they’ve been on the Oilers: the Oilers do better, in terms of shots and goals, when Petry is on the ice than they do with Schultz.
To me, Schultz is the most interesting Oiler heading into this summer because next season kind of turns on the defence. There’s a graphic kicking around the internet showing what Tambellini did to the defence and it’s just horrific. The NHL level cupboard was pretty empty when Eakins and MacTavish showed up. Part of re-stocking that was convincing Schultz to come on board.
Results be results though and we’re about 110 games into Schultz’s career and he’s struggled as a top four defenceman. He has, admittedly, been saddled with questionable defence partners – Nick Schultz, currently on a five game healthy scratch streak in Columbus and Andrew Ference, who’s had a bit of a tough time this year. There’s an awkward truth here somewhere though. If Ference was good enough to do well on a Stanley Cup finalist last year and this year has struggled with Schultz, what does that say about Schultz? Was Ference just being carried along by Boston? Are he and Schultz a bad fit? Something’s off.
Whatever it is, it makes for some very uncomfortable decisions with Schultz this summer. They could plan on him being a top four defenceman and find someone else to play with him, bumping Ference to the third pairing. That involves taking a huge risk in the event that Schultz can’t make the leap. In the alternative, they could plan on Schultz being a third pairing guy, which probably comes with additional awkwardness. Ice time aside, it’s very difficult to argue that he’s a better defenceman than Petry and, given the state of the Oilers defence this season, next season probably rides on getting this decision right.
High stakes.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com