Justin Schultz is in the final year of his contract.
He says -- and seems to mean it -- that he really hopes he will be able to re-sign with the Penguins.
There's no reason to question Schultz's sincerity, but he has a funny way of showing that he'd like to stay, because he's playing like a guy intent on cashing in on free agency in a big way next summer.
Schultz picked up the primary assist on each of the Penguins' first two goals in their 4-2 exhibition victory against the Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena Wednesday night, as Brandon Tanev and Bryan Rust steered pucks he put on the net past Detroit goalie Jonathan Bernier.
That gave him four points (all assists) in two preseason games, a pace that projects to 164 points over an 82-game regular season.
He's not going to maintain that when the real games begin, of course, but the Penguins will count on him to be a consistent contributor to their offense. That, after all, has always been his forte, since before he broke into the league with Edmonton during the 2012-13 season.
But it is the upgrade in his defensive game that is the most striking. No one is likely to confuse him with, say, Rod Langway, but during his days in Edmonton, Schultz routinely put up plus-minus ratings lower than mid-winter wind-chills on the prairies of Western Canada.
"His game has evolved in so many areas," Mike Sullivan said. "He's always been a real good offensive player, and I think he's even gotten better in that aspect of his game. But his overall game, I think Justin has really worked hard at, and I give him a lot of credit.
"He's taken a lot of pride in defending, and he's using his strengths to do so. His quickness, his brain, his skills, his stick. He's not a big, strong guy who's going to lean on people, but he uses his skills set and his strengths to win puck battles."
While Schultz's teammates disagree with the characterization of his game as "a mess" when he arrived from the Oilers, the Penguins coaches set about rebuilding his game -- and his confidence -- much as a previous staff had done with Matt Niskanen after he was acquired from Dallas.
In both cases, the time and effort the coaches invested paid exceptional dividends. Niskanen went on to earn a lucrative contract from Washington as a free agent, while Schultz helped the Penguins win a pair of Stanley Cups and is setting himself up for a generous raise on the $5.5 million he will be paid this season.
"When I first got here, I was kind of holding my stick tight," Schultz said. "These guys helped me a lot. It's a pretty easy group to play with. They make you look good a lot of the time. But I think the main thing is just confidence."
Schultz missed most of last season while recovering from a broken leg, but he shows no lingering effects from that injury. Certainly, none were evident Wednesday night, when he logged 20:49 of playing time and was on the ice for three of the Penguins' four goals.
"My legs are starting to feel like they're in game shape," Schultz said. "It's nice having all the guys back. It feels like a normal game for us."
His teammates have gotten used to having him around, although there's no guarantee that will be the case after his contract expires next summer. For now, Schultz tries to not be distracted by the uncertainty surrounding his future.
"I've dealt with one-year contracts a lot, so I know what it's like," he said. "You try to put it in the back of your mind and just play hockey and it will take care of itself.
"If we win, everything is going to work out and, hopefully, I stay here. This is where I want to be."
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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