EDMONTON – He has just one NHL practice under his belt, but defenceman Justin Schultz has already impressed the Edmonton Oilers’ coaching staff.
“I see a hockey player who has moxie, who has the ability to step up into the play when needed, he has the ability to play strong defensively, he skates strong, he loves the game,” said Oiler assistant coach Steve Smith, who has seen virtually every one of the 34 games Schultz played this season with the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League.
“From all accounts from the coaches I’ve talked to he wants the puck, he wants to be on the ice, he wants to be a game-changer. There’s just so many positives I’ve seen to this point.”
Schultz was one of the most sought-after free agents last summer, and he showed while playing on a talented Barons team including Oiler forwards Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
He left the AHL with 18 goals — two shy of the AHL record for defencemen — and 48 points, second in league scoring only to Eberle.
The 23-year-old native of Kelowna, B.C., who spent the previous three seasons with the University of Wisconsin, said having the three Oilers in the AHL was definitely an advantage for him.
“We played a lot together … hopefully we can bring that chemistry up here,” he said Monday.
He was put to task right way as the Oilers’ training camp got into full swing with a two-hour, up-tempo practice full of drills.
“It seemed like it went by pretty quick,” Schultz said. “It was awesome, from drill to drill real quick, a well planned practice. I really enjoyed myself out there. It was a fast-paced practice, guys were flying around there so it was good to get that first one out of the way.”
With only one week before the season opens on the weekend, head coach Ralph Kruger elected to pair Schultz with his namesake: NHL veteran Nick Schultz who has played 763 NHL games, all but 20 of those with the Minnesota Wild.
“He just makes it easier,” Justin Shultz said of his defence partner. “He’s been in the league a long time so it’s nice to have someone back there to talk to me a lot, kind of ease me into the NHL.”
There’s no doubt the rookie defenceman will have to adjust to life in the NHL. After electing not to sign with Anaheim after the Ducks drafted him in 2008, he joined Wisconsin where he played a high of 43 games in a season. The Oilers will be playing 48 games in 98 days and he’s already played almost a full varsity season in the AHL.
“I know he did come out of about a 40-game schedule last year playing college hockey and he’s probably played close to that already this year,” Smith said. “He seems fresh, his fitness test results are very high, he hasn’t complained about bodily injuries and everything seems to be functioning well. I think it’s going to be no different for him than anyone else.”
Schultz said he feels just fine after the AHL games and Monday’s quick-paced practice, but agrees he has to remember to do “all the little things … to make sure you don’t wear out.”
“I just have to be smart and I think I’ll be just fine,” he added.
At six-foot-one and listed on the Oilers’ website at 163 pounds, Schultz will now be playing regularly against NHL players bigger and stronger, a factor he plans to offset with smarts.
“You have to be stronger, guys up here are bigger. For me I have to be smarter, have good sticks and make sure I’m in good position all the time,” he said.
“I have to think the strength of the game here is going to be different, guys are not going to be so easy to push off the puck,” said Smith who played 803 NHL games, mostly with the Oilers. “It’s going to be the battles in the trenches that are always so difficult on young defencemen, and angles because of the speed of the game changes for him as well.
“Certainly the level of play, the quickness is going to change from the American League to here so we won’t know until that happens. But from what I’ve seen he skates well enough, he’s agile enough, laterally has plenty of ability to move.”
The Oilers open their schedule Sunday in Vancouver and have their home opener next Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks.