Less than a year ago, Justin Schultz couldn't have felt lower as a hockey player. On defense for the Edmonton Oilers, he struggled, lost confidence, struggled more and lost confidence more when his own fans booed him. The snowball grew too big to bear on Feb. 23, when he was minus-3 in a 4-1 home loss to the Ottawa Senators.
"I didn't even want to be on the ice," Schultz said. "I wanted to go crawl in a hole or something."
Schultz wasn't on the ice the next two games. The Oilers scratched him. He was on his couch in his apartment on Feb. 27 when a bunch of friends suddenly texted him at once. Instead of reading the messages, he went straight to Twitter and learned the news:
He had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At that moment, it started to change.
"The first thing I thought was, 'I'm going to go play with Sidney Crosby,'" Schultz said. "It was pretty exciting."
Video: PIT@NJD: Schultz roofs one over Schneider late in 2nd
Schultz helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup last season and signed a one-year contract with them on July 13. With 26 points in 42 games this season, he's tied for 11th among NHL defenseman in scoring and is on pace for 50 points, which would shatter his NHL career high of 33 set in 2013-14. He's plus-20, tied for fourth among defenseman and tied for eighth among NHL skaters.
Same player. Different circumstances.
"Everything's just working out well so far," Schultz said. "I love playing here. So hopefully it keeps going that way."
Expectations were high in Edmonton. The Oilers won a recruiting battle to sign Schultz as a college free agent. In 2012-13, his first professional season, he had 48 points in 34 games for Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League, then 27 in 48 games for the Oilers.
But the next three seasons, Schultz slid backward. The Oilers struggled, extending their streak of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs to eight, nine, 10 years, and gave him heavy minutes against hard competition.
All of that evaporated in Pittsburgh.
"Sometimes that's what a player needs, just a fresh start, a new environment," Schultz said. "I tried. It's not like I wasn't working hard in Edmonton. I think it just didn't work out. Nothing bad to say about them or anything. It was just time for a change."
Video: NYR@PIT: Schultz banks a shot past Raanta
The day Schultz arrived, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan told him they wanted to play a fast style and his skill set would be a good fit. They told him they were going to play to his strengths.
They didn't put him in the lineup for more than a week after the trade, giving him the chance to practice, watch games and get his bearings. When they did put him in the lineup, they put him on the third pair with Ian Cole and on the second power-play unit. In Edmonton, his average ice time had been 20:08. In Pittsburgh, it dropped to 14:14 in the regular season and 13:01 in the playoffs.
Schultz and Cole tried to keep it simple and build a foundation on defense. Get the puck back. Get it to the forwards. Let them go. The Penguins had so much speed and skill, if they could do that, they would spend less time in their end, more in the offensive end. Slowly, the snowball started to roll the other way.
"Confidence has so much to do with how guys play and the style they play and how successful they are at playing it," Cole said. "When you don't have confidence, those reads aren't as quick. They're not as crisp. You tend to hesitate a little bit. You're a little unsure, which [leads to] making the wrong read or being too slow to execute it or whatever. It usually ends up not working. You see the guys that have full confidence. Whether or not they make the right read, they commit to it right off the bat, and more often than not, it tends to work out."
Video: BOS@PIT: Schultz converts feed from Crosby
Schultz, 26, is averaging 18:41 this season, less than he used to in Edmonton, but more than he did in Pittsburgh last season. He's usually on the third pair at even strength and on the second unit on the power play, but has moved up in the lineup at times. When Kris Letang has been injured, he has been on the first power-play unit with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. The Penguins rank fifth on the power play (22.8 percent) and second in goals per game (3.40). That will help your numbers.
It didn't look like it Saturday when Schultz was a season-worst minus-4 in a 6-3 loss to the Red Wings. But Schultz has improved defensively too. He has emphasized his play away from the puck and Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar has worked with him on details like stick positioning.
"Coming in last year, the coaches did a good job of putting me in spots to succeed," Schultz said. "I didn't play that much, but I got my confidence back. Just got to keep improving and keep working hard and see where it goes, hopefully another run with this team."