When 18-year-old defenseman Justin Schultz played junior hockey for the Westside Warriors, it was obvious he possessed rare offensive skills for a blue-liner.
“The first five minutes you watched him, you could clearly make that decision,” said University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves.
Schultz, though, delayed his dream of someday playing in the NHL.
Making his professional debut at age 22 with the Oklahoma City Barons, who host Peoria at 7 Tuesday night at the Cox Convention Center, Schultz has taken the American Hockey League by storm.
“Justin seemed to blend in right away,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “He's a very talented defenseman. Obviously, his offensive numbers are very strong. But one thing that goes overlooked is his defensive play. He's a pretty complete hockey player.”
That wasn't always the case.
It's common for Canadian hockey players to turn pro at age 17 or 18. First-round picks sometimes go straight to the NHL. Most need to work on their games at lower levels.
Schultz was selected in the second round in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks but felt he would benefit by gaining a few pounds and playing a few more seasons. After the '08 draft, he played another year of junior hockey, and then three years at Wisconsin.
“I wasn't ready to turn pro,” Schultz said. “I was pretty tall (6-foot-2), but I was skinny. I wasn't strong, yet. Plus, I needed to improve my game defensively. And you're getting an education, too. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
Defensemen rarely finish among the top 20 scorers. Schultz, though, leads the AHL with 32 points. He has a league-high 21 assists.
Schultz, the 43rd overall pick in the 2008 draft, said one benefit to playing collegiate hockey was he played only 40 games a year compared to twice that many in the pros.
“You could say I was a late bloomer,” Schultz said. “I didn't think I could play at a high level at that size. Not playing as many games helped me in the weight room, helped me work on my game. When I went to college, that's where I really started to take off.”
The two-time All-American scored 113 points in 120 career games with the Badgers. Eaves said Schultz's patience helped mold him into an elite player.
“He demonstrated right away his ability to be the quarterback on the power play, being an offensive guy,” Eaves said. “Where his game grew was his play without the puck. Part of that was the strength factor. He came back for his junior year because he wanted to get bigger and stronger.”
Schultz weighed 175 pounds when he arrived at Wisconsin. When he become a free agent last summer, eventually signing with the Edmonton Oilers, Schultz weighed 195.
Schultz is on pace to shatter every AHL record for a defenseman if the NHL cancels the 2012-13 season and he plays in OKC all year.
No AHL rookie blue-liner has scored more than 20 goals or 66 points. The AHL single-season record for points by a defenseman is 96, set 19 years ago by Chris Snell of the St. John's Maple Leafs.
“The amount of success he's had has been a little mind-boggling,” Eaves said. “We knew he would have success. But to lead the American League in points speaks to two things. It speaks to that extra year of college helped him. And it speaks to the level of ability of his teammates.
“They have a lot of high-end kids down there in Oklahoma City. Put some high-end kids together, and they're able to do some pretty special things.”
Named the AHL Player of the Month in October and the Rookie of the Month in November, the Westbank, British Columbia, Canada native always had the skill set. Now he has the size.
Whether he's able to match the standards of NHL defensive greats such as Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque or former Edmonton Oilers star Paul Coffey remains to be seen.
“His ability to see the ice and make things happen is very special,” Eaves said. “But there's still another step to make at the National Hockey League level. Let's not kid ourselves. He's given some indications that he's going to be able to do some things. But it's another step, another level. He realizes that.”
The Oilers drafted one of the greatest offensive defensemen in NHL history in Coffey, part of the Wayne Gretzky-era dynasty. Coffey, who played 22 seasons for nine different teams, ranks second all-time among defensemen in career goals and assists.
Nelson compares Schultz's game to Los Angeles All-Star defenseman Drew Doughty, the No. 2 overall pick in that 2008 draft who last season helped the Kings win the Stanley Cup.
“Justin is playing brilliant hockey right now,” Nelson said. “He's an impact player. Obviously, we'll have to see how he does in the National League once it starts up. But he's that type of player. That bodes well for the Edmonton Oilers. It's pretty exciting for the organization.”
Schultz is an example that delaying a pro career can be beneficial.
“Those three years in college were big for me,” Schultz said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I'm probably playing the best hockey of my life right now.”