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Schultz not concerned by return to Anaheim

by Curtis Zupke

LAKEWOOD, Calif. -- Irony surrounded Justin Schultz when he stepped outside a local practice rink to talk to reporters.

The facility is owned and operated by the Anaheim Ducks, and their webbed-D logo is evident. As Schultz talked, his Edmonton Oilers equipment bag was being loaded into a truck adorned with that Ducks logo, headed toward Honda Center.

That's where Schultz will be public enemy No. 1 Monday, when he plays in Anaheim for the first time since he spurned the Ducks -- the team that drafted him with the 43rd pick of the 2008 NHL Draft -- and signed with Edmonton this past summer. Schultz almost chuckled and was coy when asked what reception he'll receive.

"I don't know," he said. "We'll see when game time comes. Whatever happens, it is what it is."

Justin Schultz
Defense - EDM
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 20
SOG: 68 | +/-: -12
Having it come this late in the season might make it easier because he's played in opposing NHL buildings for months now. Schultz heard it in the American Hockey League when his Oklahoma City Barons played at Abbotsford, the affiliate of the rival Calgary Flames.

"I got booed," he said with a laugh. "I guess I'll be used to it."

This rift is different, though, considering Schultz's saga played out in dramatic fashion and left members of the Ducks organization confused and angry. Schultz this week reiterated that it wasn't anything Anaheim did or didn't do as much as it was his desire to explore a rare option of free agency at 21.

"It was a really tough decision for me to make," Schultz, now 22, said. "Obviously I was drafted here. Again, it was just having the opportunity which you won't have many times in your career to choose where you want to play, and I saw a great opportunity here in Edmonton. Things have been going great so far."

Schultz wasn't even considered to be Anaheim's best defense prospect taken in that 2008 draft. The team also chose Jake Gardiner, an eventual Wisconsin teammate of Schultz who was projected to be on the fast track to the Ducks' blue line.

But the emergence of Schultz, picked in the second round that same year, made Gardiner expendable, and Anaheim traded Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul to the Toronto Maple Leafs to re-acquire Francois Beauchemin in February 2011.

Schultz took part in development camps with the Ducks, and former Anaheim defenseman Scott Niedermayer visited Schultz at Wisconsin during his sophomore and junior seasons.

"We went out to dinner," Schultz said. "We really didn't talk hockey that much. It was just nice to sit and talk with him."

Anaheim planned to have Schultz debut late last season and even offered to play him in the regular-season finale. But Schultz had reached a fourth summer without signing with the Ducks, which opened a loophole in the former Collective Bargaining Agreement that made Schultz eligible for unrestricted free agency because he played an extra season in the British Columbia Hockey League before Wisconsin.

Schultz declared pro in late May 2012 and the Ducks could not sign him in the ensuing 30-day period despite multiple attempts. Trading his rights was futile because it was known Schultz would test free agency. By this time Anaheim general manager Bob Murray was simmering because he said Schultz told the organization he was coming.

Part of the issue was that Schultz, from British Columbia, sought to play for a Canadian team.


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The whole episode culminated when Schultz signed a two-year entry-level deal worth $925,000 with Edmonton on June 30, 2012, after he eliminated a handful of other suitors.

The next day, on the first day of free agency, Murray snapped to reporters on a conference call that "I'm more confused than ever now. If he had it in his mind that he wanted to play in Canada … OK. I get that. I'm a Canadian, too. But Eric Lindros, when he didn't want to play in Quebec, he went to his team that drafted him and said, 'No, I'm not going to play there.' He allowed that team to make the move to get something for him … [Schultz] told us numerous times he wanted to play for us."

Schultz has had growing pains defensively at the NHL level, but it speaks to his ability that he wasn't getting challenged enough in the AHL. Schultz had 18 goals and 30 assists in 34 games, outscoring everyone in that league but Oilers teammate Jordan Eberle at the time.

"He's just so skilled and such a great skater that a lot of parts of the game come real easy to him," teammate Ryan Whitney said. "He's very fast, so if he does occasionally get beat he just recovers and usually breaks the play up. He's a great guy, too. He's always looking to learn. Everyone here loves him. He's going to be a pretty special player."

Schultz has six goals and 14 assists in 38 games with Edmonton. It helps that he played with the Oilers' other young players in Oklahoma City during the lockout, notably the kid line of Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

"It's been a very challenging rookie season," Oilers coach Ralph Krueger said of Schultz. "Never in the history of the NHL has a rookie at that level began with an almost half a season in the American league at an average ice time of 30 minutes, and then being called upon to follow it up with the most compressed 48-game schedule in NHL history. I think he's doing an excellent job with it."

The Ducks are doing just fine without Schultz. That conference call? It was held because Murray signed Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen, the former having another career renaissance and the latter adding much-needed size and strength to the back end.

Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau didn't follow the Schultz drama, although he did meet him last season.

"I know we owned him at one point, and we didn't at the end," Boudreau said. "As far as I know, it's just a uniform. He's a good player and all, but we have to beat the Oilers and not Justin Schultz."

The teams meet again April 21-22 in Edmonton.

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