Justin Schultz joined the Edmonton Oilers in 2012 with a lot of promise. The team had a lot of young, budding superstars, and seemed to be a perfect fit for the offensively gifted blueliner.
But what followed was disappointment. The Oilers suffered three straight losing seasons and finished near or at the bottom of the standings despite having immense talent and many high-end draft picks.
But Schultz's career would hit its lowest point in February of 2016. He was a staggering minus-22 with just 10 points on the year with Edmonton. To make matters worse, Schultz's confidence was at an all-time low.
"I didn't play well at all when I was (in Edmonton), especially near the end," Schultz said. "It was tough. I remember near the end being just pretty down."
It was so bad that the talented playmaker didn't even want to touch the puck.
"When you don't have confidence you don't want the puck at all," he said. "You're afraid of making a mistake every time you have the puck. I didn't have the confidence to make plays like I normally would in years before."
The Pens organization could see the potential of a player like Schultz and how he could help their team.
"We thought he was a player that could fit into the style of play that we're trying to play," Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said. "He sees the ice well. He passes the puck extremely well. He's a mobile defenseman. That's the type of defense corps that we're trying to build. We thought as though he had the skillset that could fit into the style of play that we're trying to play."
The Pens acquired Schultz on Feb. 27 at the NHL trade deadline for a third-round pick. Upon his arrival the Pens had a plan on how to resurrect Schultz's confidence.
"When we first acquired him we tried to put him in situations where he could play to his strengths," Sullivan said. "For the most part he did not play against the top-6 forwards for our opponents. We tried to use him in offensive situations and play him behind players like (Sidney) Crosby or (Evgeni) Malkin, and certain situations where his skillset would help those guys and they would help him as well. That was the rationale when we first acquired him."
Schultz responded. He posted 8 points in 18 games with the Pens. More impressively, he went from a minus-22 with Edmonton to a plus-7 with Pittsburgh. He would go on to play in 15 postseason contests and help the Pens win the Stanley Cup.
"We had a pretty solid team last year going into the playoffs. It worked out," Schultz said. "I had some good D partners helping me out, good teammates and just getting the confidence back."
In the summer the Pens re-signed Schultz for a bargain $1.4 million, hoping that he could finally fulfill his great potential with a fresh start and a full season with the Pens. And he's proving them right.
Schultz, 26, has set career highs across the board in goals (12), assists (33) and points (45). In fact, in his 80 games played since joining the Pens, Schultz has notched 53 points (13G-40A) and a plus-35.
"I have my confidence back," Schultz said. "I needed a change of scenery and new environment. Luckily, I got a good opportunity to go elsewhere and try to get my game back on track. It worked out. I'm just trying to keep working hard and keep getting that confidence up.
"Now I feel comfortable playing against top lines. It's still a work in progress, but it's getting better."
While there are many factors in Schultz's remarkable turnaround, the biggest factor was Schultz himself.
"I give Justin so much credit for the overall development of his game," Sullivan said. "He's really made a commitment to play the game at both ends of the rink. We've challenged him in the aspects of his game where we felt as though he needed improvement. We continue to try to put him positions where he can play to his strengths.
"Justin deserves so much credit for the commitment level that he's put in and the willingness that he's shown to work at his overall game. The Penguins are reaping the rewards right now."
It will certainly be an emotional return for Schultz when the Pens face his former Edmonton Oilers Friday night, but the defenseman has fully turned the page on his career.
"I enjoyed my time here. Met a lot of great people and teammates. It's good to be back," Schultz said. "I wish it could have worked out in Edmonton, but I got a new opportunity and I'm loving it in Pittsburgh."