ARLINGTON, V.A. — Justin Schultz leaned casually against the wall outside of the Washington Capitals locker room, relaxed and smiling wide after a long Monday skate. The 31-year-old’s career path to this point has been a wild one.
Schultz came to Washington on a two-year deal last summer following a three-year stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins. And, as he continues to adjust to the District with COVID-19 protocols becoming more lenient, he’s finally starting to feel more at home.
“It was weird. I mean, I got here last year and my first day was camp because of the quarantine,” Schultz explained. “It was just a weird year obviously, it’s good coming in this year and being comfortable knowing everyone and yeah, it’s been fun.”
Growing up near Okanagan in West Kelowna, Schultz found his calling like any other Canadian kid would: it was in the genes. His father and brother played, and he spent most of his time at nearby rinks or skating on the ponds in British Columbia.
“Obviously growing up in Canada, it’s kind of your life,” Schultz laughed. “You know, you’re always playing… it’s just something I fell in love with at an early age. Fortunate enough to be able to keep playing.”
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After a deal with his draft team, the Anaheim Ducks, fell through, Schultz was a high-profile college free agent, and teams literally lined up in his agent’s office to pitch their opportunity.
His vision, puck-moving ability, speed and smooth skating made him an immediate success with the Edmonton Oilers organization in 2012-13. His time began as something of a dream. He won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman while lacing ’em up with the Oklahoma City Barons during the lockout season. He also picked up 27 points in 48 games in his rookie campaign when the league returned in February.
However, things took a dark turn and in the 2013-14 season. Still young and adapting to the NHL game, the Oilers thrust him into top-pairing minutes. He still racked up points but struggled significantly in his own end as he worked to adjust to the speed of the league.
Edmonton was also among the worst teams in the NHL for years, often dwelling in the basement of the NHL standings.
Over a few seasons, his point production, his game and his confidence hit rock bottom. In his final season with the team, he had just 14 points in 45 games (2015-16). He was also a minus-78 over four years with the Oilers, the worst of all NHL defensemen.
“It was a tough couple years for me there. Obviously had some high expectations and didn’t work out, unfortunately,” Schultz said. “But you know, you learn from it and it makes you better.”
Edmonton dealt Schultz to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round pick in a deal that paid off big time for Pittsburgh. He was able to get the time to really develop and work with the team to get his game up to speed.
With appropriate minutes and a good development team, the 6-2, 188-pound defender was able to flourish into a two-time Stanley Cup Champion blueliner capable of playing top-4 minutes. He also finished 10th in Norris voting in 2016-17.
“We were, I think, in last place that year in Edmonton. So went from last to first, and it was a great year,” Schultz smiled. “Just winning the Cup that year gives you a lot of confidence playing in big-time games, which I never had before. It was huge for my career.”
Over five years with the Penguins, Schultz dished 22 goals and 113 points, as well as 306 blocks and 161 hits, in 234 games while averaging 19:37 per night. However, multiple injuries took away from Schultz’s overall game, and general manager Jim Rutherford decided to let him become a UFA in 2020.
The Capitals picked him up on a short deal, as he’s become a key part of the team’s identity.
In 46 regular-season games last year, Schultz led all Washington blueliners in goals-for percentage (63.33) and high-danger goals-for percentage (58). He also led the team in primary assists (19) and rebounds created (8), and regained his swagger as one of the primary puck carriers.
“He’s a veteran player. I think we knew what we were getting when he was signed here, and he hasn’t disappointed with any of his game,” Laviolette said. “He’s an offensive defenseman that can skate, shoot and make plays. He’s had success in other teams — high-level success. And he’s come in and I don’t think he’s disappointed at all… he’s come in as advertised and he’s done exactly what we were hoping he would do.”
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It’s that play and leadership from Schultz, who’s currently playing alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk, that will be key for the Capitals as they hope to make it past the first round for the first time since they hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2018. Schultz is Washington’s second RHD after John Carlson, and with the team still trying to find its identity on the left side, Schultz will play a major role as a leader on the backend.
Since coming to the District, Schultz has taken the time to explore D.C.’s restaurant scene (and indulge in the occasional steak bowl with queso at Chipotle) and figure out the city’s traffic and directions. Back home, he’ll golf in the summers and explore the wine country near Okanagan. To take his mind off the pressures of hockey, he likes listening to podcasts and country music and re-watching The Office to take his mind off things.
“It’s a good way to shut your brain off,” he laughed.
Now in his 10th NHL season — and a contract year with a lot to prove — building confidence is still an important part of the process for the Schultz.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Schultz said. “I mean, you can have it one day, and the next day, it’s gone. So that’s just, being confident in your abilities and having good teammates around you and coaching staff to support you, it helps being on good teams like here.”