The Edmonton Oilers believe that, for at least one more season, they've secured the services of a key component of their talented young core.
Restricted free-agent defenseman Justin Schultz agreed to terms with the Oilers on a one-year contract valued at $3.675 million, the team announced Friday.
"I think we are both pretty happy in getting it done, not having this drag on," Schultz told the Oilers website. "I'm happy with the contract. I obviously have to prove myself more to get a longer term. Hopefully I have a good year this year, the team does better and we'll get it done."
The one-year contract gives the Oilers the opportunity to sign Schultz to a long-term contract in 2015, something Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish said he wants to do.
"What we wanted to do as an organization was to buy ourselves a little bit of time so we have what we feel is going to be a much better environment to negotiate a long-term deal in terms of the potential growth of the player and also the potential growth of the team," MacTavish said. "Both sides chose not to go to arbitration. We could have taken Justin to arbitration, but we both agreed that wasn't the right thing for this player, to take a player that we feel so strongly about in our future and put him through that divisive process."
The 24-year-old had 11 goals and 33 points in 74 games last season, leading the team in average time on ice at 23:20 per game. Schultz, a second-round pick (No. 43) of the Anaheim Ducks in the 2008 NHL Draft, spent three years at the University of Wisconsin, became a free agent when he opted not to sign with Anaheim and agreed to a two-year, entry-level deal with Edmonton in 2012.
Schultz played for the Oilers' American Hockey League affiliate in Oklahoma City and led AHL defenseman with 48 points in 34 games before reporting to the Oilers to start the delayed 2012-13 season. Despite playing less than half the season with the Barons, Schultz won the Eddie Shore Award as the top defenseman in the AHL.
"Things like that just don't happen to average or good players; those things only happen to great players, and I feel Justin is going to be a great player and certainly a great Oiler," MacTavish said. "Time will bear that out. I think Justin has Norris Trophy potential. I don't think there are too many people who would disagree with me in that regard."
Schultz is part of an Edmonton defense that has been overhauled in the past year. Last summer the Oilers signed defenseman Andrew Ference to a four-year contract and then named him captain. This summer, Edmonton signed Mark Fayne to a four-year contract and Keith Aulie for one year. The Oilers also acquired Nikita Nikitin in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets and signed the Russian to a two-year contract.
The unit also was bolstered by the hiring of veteran coach Craig Ramsay, who has been a coach and assistant coach for number of teams, most recently with the Florida Panthers.
"I think Craig is going to give Justin a very experienced perspective on managing decisions and being aggressive. He's going to encourage Justin, he's going to encourage the rest of our defense to get up in the play," MacTavish said. "That's really what you need to do to create offense in today's NHL."
If Schultz is to fulfill his potential, he'll have to improve his defensive play. He has 19 goals and 60 points in 122 games in his two seasons with Edmonton, but he was minus-22 last season.
"I want to be a plus player," he said. "Improving my plus/minus is something that's going to come with being better defensively. Also, having a better team game and winning more games. Hopefully we get off to a good start and build off that."
MacTavish downplayed Schultz's reputation as a one-dimensional player when asked about the defenseman's defensive deficiencies, and he made it clear he considers Schultz a vital part of a young nucleus that includes forwards Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov. That core group will be expected to return the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since Edmonton lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final
"I disagree with the perception that he's weaker on the defensive side of things. If there's a 1-on-1 happening on the ice and Justin's defending it and I'm upstairs watching, I'm pretty happy and pretty sure he's going to defend it well," MacTavish said of Schultz. "We want to send a message to all our players that we are going to be a very loyal organization. I think everybody's growing anxious for improvement and better results. I'm optimistic about this group that we have. I think that there's reason for optimism."