Edmonton, AB - Since his acquisition on Feb. 27, 2012, Nick Schultz has appeared in only 20 games as an Edmonton Oiler -- a quick introduction, no doubt, but enough to see a pattern emerge.
Schultz, 30, and a prior nine-year veteran of the Minnesota Wild, witnessed how coaching and properly catered systems could result in excellence.
So, naturally, he's eager to see what the newly appointed Oilers bench boss has in store. Ralph Krueger addressed the media Wednesday at the annual Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation Winner's Choice Lottery launch, and his words were as clear as ever:
'Winning is a byproduct of excellence.'
"It starts with that," Schultz said, explaining the importance of understanding the roles for which each player is responsible under Krueger's employ. "You've got to play a certain way, which ultimately means playing the right way. As a coach, it's necessary to understand the players you have on your team and how you need to use them to win. With him being here the last couple years, he's got a pretty good grasp on who he has and how to properly deploy them."
In Schultz's second NHL season (2002-03), he contributed three goals and 10 points in 75 regular-season games as a wide-eyed 21-year-old. That year the Minnesota Wild improved by leaps and bounds over the previous season when they accumulated only 26 wins, with a 42-20-10-1 record. Their sixth-place standing in the NHL's Western Conference meant they still had an uphill climb to surpass some of the game's greatest teams en route to a championship, but they surprised many when they advanced (but lost in a sweep) to the Western Conference Final vs. Anaheim.
"With that team, we didn't have a lot of superstars or the kind of young talent that we have here in Edmonton," Schultz said. "(Marian) Gaborik was huge for us (scoring 30 goals and 65 points in the regular season), but it was a situation where we had to play a strict system to give ourselves an opportunity. We did that by turning pucks over at the right time and in the right places and we got some timely scoring, too. There are a lot of unique things that you can do with the players you have and I think we all bought into what we needed to accomplish."
Primarily known as a stay-at-home defenceman, Schultz was a vital cog in the system Wild Head Jacques Lemaire set out to instill. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov are easily more enviable than Minnesota's top guns that year (Gaborik, Pascal Dupuis, Cliff Ronning and Andrew Brunette).
But there's more to excellence than goals and assists, Schultz explains.
"We're building a team, and Ralph has made it clear that's our M.O. There are no guarantees in this game. Power on paper doesn't necessarily equal a couple extra wins. He's got plenty of great philosophies and I'm convinced we'll see a lot more of them now that he's the head coach.
"We have the skill here. We have enough of that," Schultz added. "You get used to certain guys, playing a certain way within your system and it becomes a habit. That's where we're going, to the point where once you step out onto the ice, it all comes together -- everybody knows where to be, where they're going and it makes it a lot easier to go out there and play when you can rely on one another.
"I think that's how you become a winning team; no one's worried about anyone not being on the same page. It's about playing to our strengths, and we have plenty to work with."
Schultz, along with Ryan Whitney (29) and Andy Sutton (37), will be contributors to that plan, too. Theo Peckham, Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry are still in their early-20s, while Corey Potter -- who's slightly older at 28, nearing Whitney's age -- is lighter on NHL experience and in need of guidance as well.
Add Justin Schultz into the mix, who will likely enter the league as a 22-year-old this season.
Krueger and Assistant Coach Steve Smith handled the D last year. There's still no superstar, stud-in-the-making per se, so it'll be another battle with the committee carrying the load. But as Schultz says, as long as they're building together and with the proper leadership and system to guide them, success will come as it did in Minnesota nearly a decade ago.
"There's some excellent leadership in this locker room already," said the Strasbourg, Saskatchewan native. "I've been lucky enough to have played a long time in this league. It's my goal to help out where I can, on and off the ice with some of the younger guys. I know that when you come into the league as a young player, you look up to older guys.
"As a younger player, the league can be intimidating and it's tough understand how you have to take care of yourself away from the rink. It's something where everyone can help out in that regard, but it's certainly something that I want to be more a part of.
"You're always learning -- learning new things about training, certain things on the ice each day at practice. The game keeps evolving, changing and getting better. If you can do that, not only will help the team win games, but you can also extend your career and be a key piece to the puzzle for many years."
Schultz spent most of his summer back in Minnesota, sealing up the life he left behind when he was exchanged for Tom Gilbert in the Oilers' lone deadline-day deal late last season. Once everything was put back in order, he returned home to Calgary to train and spend time with his family.
His wife, Jessica, and three kids, Jake (4), Brooke (3) and Sydney (18 months), are all settled in Edmonton and ready to begin a new adventure.
Similarly, like the leaders they are on the ice and at home, Schultz and Krueger will be pivotal components to the Oilers' revamped game plan.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick