When the Pens first acquired defenseman Justin Schultz from Edmonton on Feb. 27, the team knew his potential. They felt the offensive defenseman - who had recorded 101 points in 248 career games with the Oilers - could eventually become a perfect fit in their system, which is built on speed and moving the puck quickly out of their own zone.
And while Pens general manager Jim Rutherford said Schultz still needed to work on his defensive game, he felt a change would be beneficial for the young blueliner and could help him develop into the player they knew he could be.
Well, everything the team hoped for with Schultz has come to pass, as the 26-year-old is developing into an all-around threat. The confidence that Schultz admitted had been shaken during the end of his three-plus years with Edmonton is back in full force, and he's having a blast being a key contributor to this team when it needs him the most with injuries to Kris Letang and Trevor Daley.
Schultz has logged big minutes in the game-plus the Pens have been without them, recording 27:11 on Dec. 16 vs. Los Angeles and 23:03 on Dec. 17 vs. Toronto while skating as the lone defenseman on the top power-play unit.
"I hoped eventually (the confidence would return). I didn't think it would be this quick," Schultz smiled. "But my teammates have been great. We have a lot of skilled players in here. They make it easy on you. They find you anywhere you are."
The points have certainly been coming as a result, as Schultz has five goals and 13 points in his last 10 games. But Schultz's focus has been on continuing to improve his defensive game that Rutherford had singled out right from the start.
"(The points) are a bonus," Schultz said. "We just want to be solid defensively and be able to go out there and have the coaches trust us and be able to go up against top lines. I think we're getting there and if we keep focusing on defense first, the other stuff, the points, that will come."
Ian Cole, who has been Schultz's primary partner since he arrived early in the calendar year, said that his ability to defend is underrated.
"He's obviously a very good hockey player, but he's a great defenseman," Cole said. "I think that's the key. He's very smart. I think when he was coming over from Edmonton, everyone was like, 'oh, he's just pure offense.' But ever since we've been together since he got here, he and I have both had a defense-first mentality. And then the offense comes.
"You can see his talent offensively shine through, but I think we're doing a lot of good things defensively and that provides the opportunities to go offensively. I think we were playing really well before we were getting the points. But it's nice to see that translate to the scoresheet for sure."
Schultz says it helps playing alongside Cole, as the outgoing, talkative defenseman has been a terrific communicator.
"'Coler' has been an unbelievable help to me," Schultz said. "We both actually talk a lot on the ice and in the dressing room, on the bench. Just letting each other know what we see out there and what we can do better and I think that helps a lot, just communicating and being on the same page with each other."
Schultz also credits defense coach Sergei Gonchar, who spends a lot of time with each and every player on that blue line to perfect the details of their games.
"He's always talking to us before games, pregame skate and all that," Schultz said. "Just letting us know what he sees out there. He's obviously one of the best defensemen to play the game, so any time he talks, we listen and he's really into the details. Stick positioning and just focusing on that and he's really instilled that in our game. And then just working on the offensive part, getting shots through, when to join and all that. He's been huge for me."
A prime example of that came on Schultz's goal in the Pens' 4-3 overtime win over Boston on Dec. 14, where he saw Sidney Crosby with the puck just inside the blue line. Schultz immediately jumped into the zone to be a pass option for Crosby, who hit him with a perfect pass. Schultz then sniped a perfect shot far side.
"(Gonchar) talks to me about picking my spots," Schultz said. "There's been times when I try to force it and he says just be patient and it will come. That's what happened when I scored. It was the right time to jump in and it resulted in a goal."
Apart from that, there's no magic formula that has resulted in Schultz taking his game to another level. He hasn't made any major changes to any of his regimens or routines. A lot of just comes with having a comfort level with this group.
"He's really easygoing," said fellow defenseman Olli Maatta, who spends a lot of time outside the rink with Schultz as the two of them live in the same apartment building. "He's a funny guy, easy to talk to. He's just a happy guy. I don't think I've seen him having a bad day yet, which is pretty amazing."
"This is one of the most fun teams I've ever been on," Schultz said. "We always have a good time and it keeps it loose in the dressing room and I think it makes it easier to play here. You're always having fun.
"It's just a place where I love to play and hopefully I can play here for a long time."