Edmonton Oilers defensman Justin Schultz can’t think of a better place to make his NHL debut than Vancouver, against the team he grew up cheering.
Not that Schultz, who is from Kelowna, just a five-hour drive to the northeast, expects a warm welcome from his home province. After choosing the talented, young Oilers ahead of the more established Canucks during the final stage of a free-agency pursuit that made headlines across the NHL, Schultz expects to hear boos.
They rained down on him during his only other trip back to British Columbia this season, when fans in nearby Abbotsford jeered almost every time he touched the puck while playing an American Hockey League game for the Oilers’ affiliate from Oklahoma City.
“I heard a little bit of that in Abbotsford when we played there, but you don’t really hear that stuff when you are playing,” said Schultz, who can count on some crowd support with “a lot of friends” and his parents in attendance Sunday.
The skilled 22-year-old defenseman was a prize addition for the Oilers over the summer, and made an immediate impression in the AHL, where he played with other top young Oilers like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Despite leaving Oklahoma City when the NHL lockout ended two weeks ago, Eberle (51 points) and Schultz (48 points) are still the top two scorers in the AHL. Schultz’s totals, which include 18 goals in just 34 games, are obviously even more impressive given he’s a defenseman.
Still, he’s admittedly nervous about his first NHL game.
“Excited, nervous, sure I’ll have butterflies before the game but can't wait,” Schultz said. “(Playing in the AHL) helps, especially playing with so many of the guys who are here right now, but this is another big jump.”
It's a jump that Schultz, a Hobey Baker finalist in his final two seasons at the University of Wisconsin before using a loophole in the old CBA to become a free agent, seems ready to make.