|Justin Schultz signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Oilers on June 30, 2012 (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
In a conversation I had with Oilers General Manager Steve Tambellini Monday afternoon, the word "expectations" was often used in reference to the club's AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, and their success during the NHL work stoppage.
Pegged by many to dominate -- Sports Illustrated, for example, called for the Barons to be a "sensation" and "best club in North America" -- expectations were understandably high. After all, it's a perfect storm of opportunity, as OKC looks to build on sophomore success with the help of some guys named Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall.
It's Nov. 26 and, combined, the Oilers' Big 3 have suited up in 45 games with the Barons, potting 23 goals and 61 points while their point-per-game averages are fairly evenly divided between them.
And yet, neither Eberle, nor Hall or Nugent-Hopkins lead the Barons in scoring. Justin Schultz does (10 goals and 28 points). In fact, he's the rabbit the rest of the AHL is chasing atop the League's scoring race.
In a not-so-quiet midsummer saga that saw Schultz, a former University of Wisconsin Badger, sign a two-year entry-level contract, the Oilers knew they were getting something good. How good? Not even Tambellini expected this -- and he, along with his keen-eyed scouting and hockey operations staff, knew the 22-year-old inside and out before making their pitch.
As an offensive standout in three seasons with the Badgers, Schultz put up 40 goals and 113 points in 121 WCHA games. That part Tambellini saw coming. But it's the complete, well-rounded game that's blown the lid off his pre-season "expectations."
"There's no doubt his introduction into pro hockey in these first couple months has been impressive," said Tambellini. "You see the dynamic game he can bring offensively -- whether he's skating the puck up the ice or moving it with a pass, he's a bright player.
"From an intelligence standpoint, defensively, you find that he doesn't get himself boxed into trouble too many times. He has a very deceiving stick, as far as the poke check and his body position -- and while he's not physically pushing people over at this point, he's in a good defensive position more often than not for a young defenceman. It's the most difficult position to break into in pro hockey.
"He's obviously had an impressive start."
Don't think for a second that the AHL is easy. Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins each had their struggles before putting it all together, During the lockout, it's become even more of a challenge when you consider all the other young stars that have been sent down until a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached.
"If you've watched an American Hockey League game, you better recognize and have respect for the game at that level and the players in it," said Tambellini, who's accumulated a new career-high in Air Miles watching the Barons play in OKC, Abbotsford and across North America this season. "It's a fine line between an NHL player and an American Hockey League player on any given night. It hasn't been easy for our people to have success there. You soon recognize that if you don't have both feet in with total commitment, regardless of what you've done in the National League, you're not going to have success there."
Considering that, Schultz's debut becomes all the more impressive with the 11-5-1-1 Barons. Some quick figures: he's collected at least a point in 16 of the team's 18 games, has a point in each win and has contributed with multi-point night in seven of them.
Simply put, it's a record-setting pace.
20 years ago, during the 1992-93 season with the Baltimore Skipjacks, John Slaney scored 20 goals, setting an AHL rookie record that still stands today. With another 58 games to do it, Schultz needs 11 goals to establish a new benchmark among first-years.
Slaney was considered as one of the best AHL defencemen in history. In total, he racked up 166 goals and 519 points in 631 career games. He was the League's all-time leading scorer among defencemen until ex-Baron Bryan Helmer surpassed him in 2011.
Other records can also be reached (watch out, Chris Snell). Take a look at my colleague, OKC Barons play-by-play broadcaster Jim Byers' Weekly Report for a full run-down.
When Schultz signed with the Oilers back on June 30, no one expected him to play a single game in the minors. Circumstance has led to that, however, but it hasn't derailed the hype. If anything, he's backed it up by displaying a nightly showcase of NHL-ready qualities. It's precisely why almost every team in the League lined up to make their pitch in an effort to sign him.
That shot, with that release? Deadly and accurate. His vision? Pinpoint and poised.
Those "expectations"? Not a problem. He's handled it like a pro -- and he'll continue to when he takes the next step to the NHL.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick