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Loaded with potential, Schultz signs with Oilers for important season

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

Justin Schultz isn’t going anywhere. It is as clear as it has ever been that the Edmonton Oilers value this young talent very highly.

General Manager Craig MacTavish stood at the podium in front of the local media on Friday and spoke to the high potential of the 24-year-old defenceman, which led the Oilers to sign him to a one-year contract valued at $3.675 million.

“What Justin brings, everybody is looking for,” MacTavish said. “We’re thankful we’ve got him.”

EDMONTON, AB - MARCH 20: Justin Schultz #19 of the Edmonton Oilers collides with Cory Conacher #88 of the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Rexall Place on March 20, 2014 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

So why not lock Schultz up longterm? The GM says more information is needed to place an accurate number on Schultz’s services.

“We had trouble agreeing on a number based on such a small sample size for Justin,” MacTavish said. “I think that, albeit he’s a bit older, he’s really only played 110 or 120 games in the league. We as an organization wanted a little bit more information, knowing fully that information can be expensive. He was very willing to provide us that information and that’s what we’re going to see. He felt strongly that he’s going to hit it out of the park this year and I agree with him.”

MacTavish added, “What we wanted to do as an organization is buy ourselves a little bit of time so we have what we feel is a much better environment to negotiate a longterm deal.”

The Oilers perceive great potential in Schultz and the player has great confidence in his abilities. The two parties decided that a one-year deal awards both the opportunity to reevaluate with a bigger sample size.

“I think we are both pretty happy in getting it done,” Schultz said. “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.”

Schultz knows he has more to prove and is more than willing to showcase himself this season.

“I’ve only played really one and a half years in the NHL and I still have a lot to prove. This coming year is going to be big for me.”

Make no mistake, the Oilers want Schultz around much longer than this upcoming season. From Schultz’s time in the American Hockey League, in which he won the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top defenceman, MacTavish knew Schultz had the potential to be a great player.

“It’s those things that just don’t happen to average or good players. These things only happen to great players and I feel like Justin is going to be a great player and certainly a great Oiler. Time will bare that out,” MacTavish said.

Photo by Getty Images.

Schultz has played 122 NHL games since signing with the Oilers as an unrestricted free agent in 2012. MacTavish and the Oilers see signs of the type of player they believe Schultz can become, but know it’s a process.

Schultz led all Oilers in time on ice last season, playing 23:20 on average per game. MacTavish sees the defenceman’s development continuing this season with him potentially playing similar minutes.

“Development and progress for a player is seldom a straight line,” MacTavish said. “We’re trying to give an estimate of where the potential is of where he’s going to get to and we feel it’s high. It’s seldom a straight line. There are some peaks and valleys along the way but I suspect that Justin is going to come into camp and we’re all going to see a player playing at a different level. I think there’s going to be some significant improvement in him at training camp and I expect him to play every bit as much.”

Schultz says he saw personal and team growth defensively as last season played out. But it’s still an area of his game that he wishes to work on in 2014-15.

“I want to be a plus player,” Schultz 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.”

Schultz has been touted as an offensive weapon. He recorded an outstanding 48 points (18-30-48) in 34 games with the Oilers AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, during the 2012-13 season. He has led the Oilers defencemen in scoring each of the last two seasons.

But MacTavish disagrees with the idea that Schultz’s defensive game is lacking far behind his offensive talents. Last season, MacTavish saw those aforementioned improvements in Schultz’s defensive game.

“I disagree with the perception that he’s weaker on the defensive side of things,” he said. “Your plus-minus would lead you to that conclusion but I’ve always believed that he’s very good defensively. If there is a one-on-one happening on the ice and Justin is defending it and I’m upstairs watching, I’m pretty happy and sure he’s going to defend it well.

“He showed me at the end of last year that he really was managing the decisions on when to go, when to stay back, when to probe offensively and when to get back. He was managing those decisions very well. I think the coaching staff did a good job communicating that with him but I really believe this guy is going to be a player that I know is going to be accountable at both ends and equally effective in the defensive zone.”

Decision-making and the need to be responsible are what the young defenceman has learned from his time in the NHL thus far.

“You’ve got to be responsible at both ends of the ice,” Schultz said. “I can get away with jumping up into the play and not coming back in college or junior. But I have to be responsible in the NHL or other teams will make you pay for it. That’s the thing I’ve learned the most.”

Signing Schultz before training camp was a major need for the Oilers. According to MacTavish, Schultz is very much a part of the core group of players expected to help the Oilers end their playoff drought.

“Justin gave us one of the best moments for our franchise in the last number of years when he chose Edmonton. It really highlighted the potential of the group that we had and he being very much a key part of that core group. I think the one thing through the course of the negotiation that we all agreed on was the untapped potential and the incredible potential of this player.”

With those expectations come pressure and it’s something Schultz understands fully.

“There definitely is pressure,” Schultz said. “Fans have been waiting a long time and being one of those young guys who are expected to help the team get to the playoffs, you’ve just got to take it game by game and not worry too much about the end results. Do that and come the end of the year we’ll be looking at a spot in the playoffs and hopefully making a run.”

Time will tell if Schultz lives up to the potential that the Oilers believe he has within him. But in the meantime, he is just gearing up for what will be a very important season.

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