In the wake of Justin Schultz's signing with the Edmonton Oilers, the assumption might have been that the Oilers would be in search of a veteran mentor to help the promising collegiate defenseman navigate the NHL waters.
But rookie head coach Ralph Krueger said he thinks he might have such ballast already in hand.
Krueger, a former Oilers assistant coach and longtime national team coach in Switzerland, told ESPN.com he thinks longtime NHL defenseman Steve Smith, who is now an assistant with the Oilers, and veteran Nick Schultz, whom the Oilers picked up from Minnesota at the trade deadline, are perfectly positioned to help Justin Schultz make a seamless transition to the NHL both on and off the ice next season.
Nick Schultz “has been terrific in his adjustment to Edmonton,” after spending almost a decade in Minnesota, Krueger said Sunday.
“I really see that as a potential match on the ice.”
Veteran Nick Schultz (no relation to Justin) is a left-handed shot, while Justin Schultz is a right-handed shot, and Krueger favors a system that features complimentary partners in terms of playing styles. While there’s much time between now and when players might report for training camp pending the current labor negotiations, don’t be surprised if the two Schultzes get a chance to work together.
There is almost unanimous agreement among NHL scouts and management types that Justin Schultz is ready to step into a top NHL role after playing for three years at the University of Wisconsin.
“Schultz is a real good player,” one top player personnel director told ESPN.com on Sunday. “PP poise, good passer, smart shot medium heavy.”
If there are questions, it’s in his physical stature.
“Only question is weight; he is top-four material but that means lots of minutes versus 220-pound forwards on top-three lines. He needs some bulk,” the source said.
The physicality will come with good direction from the Oilers. What will be crucial to the team is how the 22-year-old manages the significant expectations that will come with joining an Oilers team long on high-end potential but short on actual evolution when it comes to the standings.
Since qualifying for the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, the Oilers have missed the playoffs every year and drafted first overall the past three years.
Justin Schultz’s signing with the Oilers is a huge boost to a franchise that has struggled to attract and keep top-end talent. But Krueger will be the catalyst to making sure those significant expectations don’t become a drag on Justin Schultz’s development.
“I like to take players out of the future and put them into the moment,” Krueger said.
The coach said he’s very big on identifying individual and team expectations.
“It’s kind of my deal,” he said.
“I’m really, really big on clarity, on honesty and on directness.”
That may mean he’s telling players things they won’t want to hear, but Krueger said at this stage of his career he’s not interested in winning any popularity contests.
That said, he thinks Justin Schultz will adapt very well to the NHL game and the NHL pressures.
Although many are focused on Justin Schultz’s offensive prowess -- he scored 34 goals the past two seasons -- Krueger said he’s confident his defensive game will allow him to play the kinds of minutes many are projecting him to play.
“His game will come because of the skill set,” Krueger said. “He processes the game very well.”