Oilers' first-year pro Justin Schultz a quick study
Contrary to the statistics and a growing reputation as a future NHL star, Oklahoma City defenseman Justin Schultz is not perfect and his transition from college to professional hockey has come with the natural bumps one would typically expect.
At least, that's what Schultz is saying these days. Whether you believe him is a topic for a different debate.
"It still is difficult. I'm learning every day," Schultz, Edmonton's top defensive prospect, humbly told NHL.com earlier this week in a phone interview from Oklahoma City, where he is playing for the Barons in the American Hockey League. "It's tougher at this level. It's still a challenge, but obviously I've had a good start."
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Let's take a look at that start Schultz is talking about. It'll help you decide if you want to believe him when he says he finds professional hockey "difficult" and a "challenge."
Schultz and teammate Jordan Eberle, an NHL All-Star last season, are tied for the AHL lead with 38 points through 26 games. Remember, Schultz is a defenseman and Eberle is a forward who was 16th in the NHL last season with 76 points.
Schultz has 14 goals, seven shy of the AHL record for a rookie defenseman. He has an AHL-best 24 assists. His 38 points are 14 more than the next rookie. He has been held without a point in three games and has had at least two points in half the games he's played, including two against the Texas Stars, who have to deal with Schultz four more times before the end of the month.
"The American League is a real good league and lots of time there is an adjustment period, but it seems like he missed the adjustment period," Stars coach Willie Desjardins told NHL.com. "He went right into it and has functioned at a real high level."
There are two questions Schultz still has to answer:
1. Can he keep up his current pace, or at least stay close to it, through a full professional season, including a grind and travel schedule he has never faced before?
2. Can he translate his production to the NHL? When the League returns, the Oilers will bring Schultz to Edmonton and ask him to star on their blue line and run the point on their power play.
Both answers will come over time, but Schultz, who grew up in British Columbia idolizing native son Scott Niedermayer, isn't leaving much to the imagination these days. The former University of Wisconsin star is living up to the hype that followed him over the summer.
"He has parts of Niedermayer and one player he reminds me of is Drew Doughty," Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson told NHL.com. "The NHL is a step higher, but I see him doing the same thing up there. Maybe not as explosive in his first year, but I see him contributing offensively. I see him playing a lot of minutes, just as he does here -- and he plays about 30 minutes a game, handles it well.
"Is he capable of being a Scott Niedermayer? He's very capable. I feel very comfortable in saying that."
Schultz hasn't had the chance to prove it yet, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing for him. In fact, an argument can be made that it's actually the opposite.
The ongoing labor dispute has given Schultz time to adjust to professional hockey in the AHL, an opportunity he otherwise wouldn't have had because, frankly, there is just no way the Oilers were going to let him play in Oklahoma City if the NHL was in action.
Rookie defenseman Justin Schultz has been a quick study at the AHL level in his first pro season -- he's leading the league in scoring. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
Schultz was a prize of the 2012 free-agent class despite having never played a single professional hockey game. A former second-round pick by the Anaheim Ducks, he went unsigned to become an unrestricted free agent this year. Teams across the NHL pitched their programs, their futures and their markets to Schultz. He was attainable to every team because he could sign only an entry-level contract, so he was arguably the most sought-after free agent on the market.
Schultz signed a two-year deal with Edmonton after hearing about the organization and the city from a group that included Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. Schultz chose the Oilers largely because it intrigued him to be part of the team's bright future, much of which has been on display in Oklahoma City this season with Schultz and Eberle joined by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi.
"That he has this transition phase is extremely valuable for him. There are so many elements that we can mention," Edmonton coach Ralph Krueger told NHL.com. "One of them would be the pace. Coming out of college and now having three and sometimes four games a week is new to him.
"The physicality and the overall tight-checking nature of the American League -- there is not a lot of space and room, things happen a lot quicker -- he's able to adapt to that," Krueger continued. "And, of course, the opportunity to be working on what will be one of his specialties, the power play, with personnel that he will also be working with here in Edmonton. To get that kind of practice at that level is going to really help his comfort in taking that responsibility here in Edmonton, which is clearly going to be one of his staples."
Krueger also pointed to the easiness with which Schultz can adjust to the responsibilities of being a pro because he's not in the cauldron that is a hockey-mad city like Edmonton, but is instead finding his comfort zone in what for hockey players is a vastly more anonymous environment in Oklahoma City.
"He doesn't have to deal with the Canadian media and the pressures he would have coped with in Edmonton," Nelson said. "He's here in Oklahoma City, he's taken the league by storm, and he's dealing with it well. He just reminds me of a kid who just wants to go play hockey. That's all he cares about. He has lived up to the hype and exceeded my expectations."
But Schultz has not exceeded his own expectations -- especially on the defensive end, where he said he has improved the most since the AHL season started and yet still has the most improvement to make in order to be like his idol, Niedermayer.
"It's definitely harder than the offensive part of the game for me, but it'll come," Schultz said. "You can see in practice; we're going against pretty good players in Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Hall every day. The first couple of times I got stuck watching the puck, but now I'm getting better at challenging them."
Nelson is quick to point out that the Barons' coaching staff hasn't overhauled any part of Schultz's defensive game. They've made tweaks, like giving him advice on when to jump into the play and when to avoid the risk, but Nelson said major changes haven't been necessary because Schultz already had good defensive instincts and habits (i.e. stick on puck, gap control) before he turned pro.
"He has parts of [Scott] Niedermayer and one player he reminds me of is Drew Doughty," Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson told NHL.com. "The NHL is a step higher, but I see him doing the same thing up there. Maybe not as explosive in his first year, but I see him contributing offensively. I see him playing a lot of minutes, just as he does here -- and he plays about 30 minutes a game, handles it well." -- Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson
"He's an intelligent person and he takes direction very well, but we haven't really had to lean on him because he does so many things so well," Nelson said. "For instance, in our first two exhibition games he was lugging it up the ice and then he'd get caught. He learned quick. Instead of trying to force the game he is letting the game come to him and he reacts off of that. That's a good way to play defense. With defenseman, when they try to force it, it's like putting gas on fire. He's got a good balance."
The Barons' staff has had very little to tweak in Schultz's offensive game.
Schultz's ability with the puck on his stick is already considered off the charts for a 22-year-old rookie defenseman because of his smooth skating, his ability to get his wrist shot through to the net like he was shooting the puck through a mail slot, and, most importantly, "his mind-quickness," according to NHL Network and TSN analyst/scout Craig Button.
Button compared Schultz's multifaceted skills to those of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
"It's one thing to see the play that is happening, it's a whole other thing to see the potential play unfolding, and that is what he sees," Button told NHL.com. "If you take away the shot, he can pass. If you take away the pass he can beat you with his skating. He presents you multiple problems, and when you're multifaceted like him you end up with real challenges in terms of trying to defend him.
"He's like RG3. How do you defend him?"
NHL coaches will eventually have to figure it out for themselves. AHL coaches know all too well the dilemma their NHL counterparts will have.
"He'll have to prove it [in the NHL]," Desjardins said, "but he's showing every indication that [his abilities] will transfer over."