ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – The Edmonton Oilers have long had difficulty wooing and retaining free agents, but Justin Schultz is proving to be a rare prized catch.
The rookie defenceman is leading the American Hockey League in scoring with seven goals and nine assists in 12 games with Edmonton’s top farm team, the Oklahoma City Barons. Unlike many first-year pros he has enjoyed a smooth transition to the pro ranks from U.S. college hockey.
“Justin seemed to just blend in right away,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “He’s a very talented defenceman. Obviously, we know his offensive numbers are very strong. But one thing that goes overlooked is his defensive play. He has a lot of really good habits for a defenceman.
“Right now, I feel that he’s a pretty complete hockey player at this level. From his standpoint, he has to continue to improve so (that) when called upon to play in the (NHL) he can bring that type of game and intensity to the National Hockey League.”
Schultz, a 22-year-old Kelowna, B.C., native, who completed his third and final season at the University of Wisconsin last spring, is biding his time with the Barons at least until the NHL lockout ends. He chose the Oilers over a number of other suitors, including the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs, during the NHL’s summer free agent frenzy.
“It was a little tough, but I always figured in the back of my mind that Edmonton was the right place for me to be,” said Schultz, who scored the winning goal in overtime as Oklahoma City beat the Abbotsford Heat 2-1 on Saturday night.
Veteran NHL free agents have chosen to bypass, or leave, the Oilers because of Edmonton’s frigid winter climate, the small-market franchise’s struggles to pay large salaries and playoff also-ran status in recent seasons. But Schultz ignored all of those factors.
Finances were not an issue because, given the demand for his services, he was destined to receive the maximum dollars available for rookies under the expired collective bargaining agreement.
So Schultz, who Anaheim drafted in the 43rd overall in 2008, took advantage of a loophole in the CBA by leaving college early to become an unrestricted free agent.
But Edmonton was always his first choice. His main motivation was an opportunity to play alongside the likes of young stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, who are spending the lockout with the Barons, as the Oilers try to rediscover their glory years last witnessed in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“The young talent they have here, it’s going to be an exciting couple of years coming up,” said Schultz.
“It’s exciting for everybody (in the Oilers organization) to see what’s going on in Edmonton, and I think Justin recognized that,” added Nelson.
“He has the foresight of what he wants in his playing career. He wants, just like every player, to win a championship, and looks at this as an opportunity to grow with a bunch of young players around him and have the talent and the opportunity in the future to go after it.”
Schultz gives the Oilers a power-play quarterback who can play in all situations. His strong AHL start follows up on three strong offensive seasons at Wisconsin, where he racked up a total of 113 points in 121 regular-season games.
Nugent-Hopkins, who shares an apartment with Schultz in Oklahoma City, is enjoying the chance to build chemistry with him on and off the ice as they work on special-team situations and prepare to play together for a number of years.
“Obviously, on the scoresheet, he’s had a great start,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
The success has come after Schultz did not garner much acclaim upon entering the junior ranks. With WHL clubs showing little interest, he toiled for his hometown Westside Warriors in the tier two B.C. Hockey League, where he produced 90 points in two full seasons and one more in a pair of games at the outset of his teenage hockey tenure.
“I wasn’t really a highly-touted guy or anything,” said Schultz.
“(Playing in the BCHL) was huge for me. I wasn’t the biggest star and didn’t have many teams coming after me. So to be able to play in that league and to go to college and get an education was unreal. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Now, it appears to be just a question of time before Schultz gets a chance to shine in the NHL. Enjoying the opportunity to work on his skills in the highly-competitive AHL, he says he can’t wait for a chance to play against NHLers.
If, as expected, the Oilers call him up after the lockout, his presence will provide some intrigue as to how soon Edmonton can find success again. Since reaching the 2005-06 Stanley Cup finals unexpectedly, the Oilers have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons.
Schultz’s arrival will give more hope to Edmonton fans who are anxious to see a team laden with young stars develop like the former Oilers juggernaut, which also built from a strong foundation of youth.
But, when choosing teams with which to sign, Schultz was not swayed by the chance to wear the same colours that Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey once did.
“I was just focused on hockey,” said Schultz. “I saw a great opportunity here—and I wasn’t worried about anything else.”