Cross Checks: Justin Schultz

Meanwhile, Schultz is lighting it up in OKC

December, 9, 2012
12/09/12
2:18
PM ET
When Justin Schultz signed with the Oilers on July 1, he hoped he’d be in the frigid, hockey-crazed city of Edmonton by now. Instead, due to the NHL lockout, he’s cutting his pro hockey teeth nearly 1,500 miles south, where a 60-plus-degree increase in temperature isn’t the only thing that’s a little different.

"Not too many people know that much about hockey," said Schultz of playing in Oklahoma City with the Oilers’ American Hockey League affiliate.

What those in Oklahoma City might not realize is that they might be missing out on one of the sport’s next big stars.

"[The hockey world] all knew he was a pretty good hockey player, we just didn’t know how fast he would be able to translate his game to the pro hockey game,” said Todd Nelson, Schultz’s head coach with the Oklahoma City Barons. "Judging from his start through the first 20, 21 games here, he’s had an outstanding start."

Through the first 20 games, the defenseman led all AHL skaters in points (11-20-31), ahead of the likes of teammates Jordan Eberle (27), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (20) and Taylor Hall (16).

"He’s pretty much taken the league by storm," said Nelson.

“His biggest asset is the way he reads the game offensively,” said Charlotte Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels after his team hosted the Barons in late November.

“The way he joined the play, he wasn’t trying to go end-to-end with the puck. He was just jumping at the right time whether, you know, going to the net and trying to go backdoor ... just kinda being that, you know, we call it the ‘second wave’ on the offense off the rush. He’s just a very smooth skater."

Named the CCM/AHL rookie of the month for November, Schultz registered five goals and 14 assists in 13 games.

“He has a creative mind for a defenseman,” said Nelson. “He scored a goal against Houston the other night where he really didn’t have much, but he was able to freeze the defender, backhand toe drag, went around him and then scored a goal, and it was a big-league goal. You don’t see that happen very often.”

Schultz credits his offensive instincts to when he played minor hockey for the Westside Warriors in West Kelowna, British Columbia. Back then, he was a forward until his coach made a change in the depth chart.

“I think we needed some D-men and the coach decided to throw me back there,” said Schultz. "I’ve been back there ever since."

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound blueliner hasn’t been without his flaws, though.

“Just the other night he was kind of victimized by a guy going wide on him and the guy scored and [Schultz] was really upset with himself,” said Nelson.

However, the coach said Schultz got even thanks to a level of competitiveness that “people can’t measure.”

“Two shifts later he went out and rectified it by scoring a goal himself ... he wants to win every shift,” Nelson said.

“It’s pretty impressive,” said Magnus Paajarvi, Schultz’s Oklahoma City teammate and the 10th overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft. “This is probably the first player for me that’s been shocking me, like, constantly for every game he’s been playing.”

Despite the on-ice success so far in Oklahoma City, the 22-year-old Schultz is described as just one of the guys and can be found away from the rink playing "Call of Duty" and riding bikes with roommates as they try to get to their next dinner hot spot.

“He can come into any group whatsoever and be one of the group very fast,” said Paajarvi. “You can really tell there’s no ego, there’s no too much self-confidence.”
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.”
The Edmonton Oilers have won the Justin Schultz sweepstakes.

The club announced it agreed to terms with Schultz via its Twitter account.

Schultz, who turns 22 on Friday, was a star defenseman at the University of Wisconsin. Through a loophole in the current system, he became an unrestricted free agent after being originally drafted by the Anaheim Ducks.

A native of Kelowna, British Columbia, Schultz was believed to want to stay in his home country. Since he had to sign an entry-level deal to begin his NHL career, the pitch from teams was likely more about fit than money. Schultz will help fill the Oilers desperate need for defensive help, while adding to their collection of awesome, young talent up front.

The Oilers had the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft the past three years, selecting Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012).

Some 20-plus NHL teams showed interest in the blueliner and with the help of agents Wade Arnott and Don Meehan of Newport Sports, Schultz pared his short list down Wednesday to six or seven teams and heard pitches from them Thursday and Friday.

Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Minnesota and the New York Rangers made the short list and made pitches to Schultz, sources confirmed.

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