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Justin Schultz Back on Practice Ice for Penguins; What's Going to Happen When He is Ready to Play?

by Glenn Kaplan
by Glenn Kaplan

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz has not played in a game since October 13, 2018 against the Montreal Canadiens at home. He has been out for a lengthy period of time because of a leg injury that required surgery. Schultz has only played in four games so far this season and he has recorded four assists. His plus/minus is 1.

Justin Schultz returned to the ice on Saturday at Penguins practice. He has a long way to go according to Head Coach Mike Sullivan before he plays again this season. I don't think Schultz will return until after the All-Star Beak, but once he is off injured reserve, what is going to happen with the defensive unit in Pittsburgh?

I think Justin Schultz is going to be plugged into the lineup immediately because he is their second best offensive defenseman behind Kris Letang. Schultz also has a right-handed shot and many defenseman on the Pittsburgh Penguins have left-handed shots.

Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Marcus Pettersson will be locks to stay in the lineup. Letang is having a Norris Trophy like season, Dumoulin is an excellent shutdown defenseman, and Petterson has been an excellent shutdown defenseman ever since being traded from the Anaheim Ducks.

The other five defenseman on the roster currently are Jack Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak, Olli Maatta, Chad Ruhwedel, and Juuso Riikola. Which of those two players would stay in the lineup?

Jack Johnson would most likely stay in the lineup because Jim Rutherford signed him to a five-year deal in the offseason. Johnson has looked a lot better lately and he is making fewer mistakes. The other defenseman I think would stay in the lineup is Jamie Oleksiak. Oleksiak has been the Penguins second best offenseive defenseman to this point. In 33 games, he has scored four goals and recorded 11 assists so far this season. His plus/minus is 4.

With those six players likely to be in the lineup when Justin Schultz returns, what does this mean for Olli Maatta, Chad Ruhwedel, and Juuso Riikola? If Mike Sullivan doesn't go with seven defenseman at all and I don't think he will, it is very possible Olli Maatta could be on the way out of Pittsburgh via trade. Maatta has played in 40 games this season and he has only scored one goal and recorded 10 assists. His plus/minus is 5.

Maatta is 24 years old, but he isn't a very fast skater and he turns the puck over a lot. Olli Maatta has underachieved with the Penguins. He hasn't showed any signs of breaking out at any points in his career and it makes you wonder whether he has reached his ceiling or not. Maatta has three more years left on his contract and he isn't worth $4.083 million in cap space.

Ruhwedel is currently on a conditioning assignment in the AHL with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Pittsburgh organization will have no intentions to get rid of him because he provides depth to the defenseman position.

Riikola has been in and out of the lineup this season and he has been fitting the role of a seventh defenseman perfectly. When Juuso Riikola has played in games, he knows his assignment. Riikola has played in 21 games and he has scored one goal and recorded one assist. His plus/minus is -2.

For the first time in a long time, the Pittsburgh Penguins have depth on defense and it could prove large for them later on.

This article was originally published on @gk18