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."
"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.”