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Schultz Confidence Rising as he Embraces Defensive Game

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Justin Schultz is a player the Edmonton Oilers hope continues to develop into a pillar of the organization. General Manager Craig MacTavish spoke to that point on Tuesday.

“If you’re asking me, do I consider Justin Schultz in that skill level, potentially? I do,” MacTavish said, when asked whether or not he saw Schultz in the same category as Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and others. “I think he’s a terrific talent. I think he’s developing and has taken significant steps this year, maybe in the last six weeks, in terms of really establishing himself as a guy that’s got a very high upside.”
Photo by Getty Images.

Before the break, Schultz was playing some solid defensive hockey for the Oilers, all while playing over 22 minutes each night. The 23-year-old defenceman credits his improved play to having more confidence in his abilities.

“I feel a lot better,” he said. “I have a lot more confidence from the month before the break. I just have to continue that, keep working hard and hopefully have a good finish to the season.”

Schultz says he’s now playing with more decisiveness on the ice, which comes with confidence.

“Confidence is such a big thing in this game and when you don’t have it, you’re kind of afraid to make plays that you normally make. You’ve got to go out there and not be afraid to make a mistake and play they way you’ve played (when you have confidence)”

What has changed for Schultz from the beginning of the season?

“I think I’ve just been getting back to what I’ve been doing my whole life. I’ve been jumping up in the play, showing confidence and poise with the puck and it really helps when the team has been playing better as of late. It’s been helping me and hopefully we continue that.”

Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins says Schultz has been an on-going bright spot for the team as he continues to embrace a ‘defence first’ mentality.

Photo by Getty Images.

“I think he’s one of the players that has quietly flown under the radar this year with his improvement,” Eakins said. “We all know Justin Schultz can skate, we all know that he can move the puck and we all know that he can jump into the play. But the one thing that he’s done extremely well is he’s defended much, much better and that’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to take on new habits and understand the defensive game that quickly.”

“It’s taken some time with him and he’s quietly gone about his business buying into that. He understands to be an elite defenceman in this league, you name any elite defencemen in this league, they always defended first. He understands that now, where he wasn’t doing that before. It was about getting up in the play, getting points, that’s how he was going to contribute.”

Everyone knows the story.

After he signed with the Oilers in the offseason, Schultz burst onto the professional hockey scene in 2012, during the NHL work stoppage. He played in 34 games for the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League, scoring 48 points (18-30-48) and was named the AHL’s defenceman of the year. He also finished fifth on the Oilers in scoring last season, with 27 points (8-19-27).

Photo by Getty Images.

Changing his mindset to a more defensive approach to the game has been something Schultz has had to work on, but it’s been moving in the right direction.

“Well, scoring a goal or being in on a goal? That’s a great thing,” Eakins said. “Keeping a puck out of our net is equally important on the scoreboard and he’s bought totally into that and I’m proud of him. He’s taken the habits to heart and he’s gotten better, still has a ways to go, but he’s firmly moving in the right direction for me.”

It’s not that Justin resisted the change, it’s that breaking habits is a challenge for any player. It’s a challenge that Eakins embraces as a coach as he continues to work with Schultz and the entire roster.

“It’s always a challenge,” Eakins said. “It’s the fun of coaching, I guess. Would you like to just go in and have one conversation with the guy and it be done and he does it? Yeah, but they have habits that they’ve been playing with for a long time and to keep the good habits going is an easy thing to do but to straighten out some questionable habits or habits that you don’t want with your team, it is a challenge. But you’ve got to enjoy the challenge as a coach and I think the players respect it, that you’re not going to come off of it, that you’re going to stay on it and that you’re not going to look the other way.

“With Justin, he’s not a hard-headed kid. It was just that, I think the more he understood how important it is for him to defend, especially with the amount of minutes that he’s going to end up playing in his career. Once he understood that, it was an easy transformation. The hardest transformation is to get the job done when he’s out there, but he’s doing well at it.”

Schultz looks to be a big part of what the Oilers would like to accomplish in the future. His growing confidence and understanding of the defensive game plan of the team are positive signs for the team.

MacTavish told the media on Tuesday that there has been ‘preliminary conversations’ with Schultz’s representation and that there would be ‘more serious’ discussions about re-signing the defenceman after the trade deadline on March 5. Schultz is a restricted free agent at the end of this season.

“Nothing really changes for me,” Schultz said. “I’m just going to keep playing. I have my representation that’s going to take care of most of that and I’ve just got to worry about playing and when the right time comes, we’ll discuss that. But until then, I’m just going to play.”

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