Edmonton Oilers young stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle finally showed what all the hype was about — but Justin Schultz, the rookie defenseman from the University of Wisconsin, has had the biggest impact three games into the Oklahoma City Barons' season.
Schultz scored his second and third goals of the American Hockey League season and added an assist in the Barons' 5-2 win over San Antonio on Friday night in front of a crowd of 6,323 at the Cox Convention Center.
Labeled as an elite offensive defenseman, Schultz recorded a plus-5 game, a Barons record, which means Schultz was on the ice for all OKC five goals and on the bench during the Rampage's two goals.
“He has a lot of talent,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “He's so dynamic, but he's also smart. In the defensive zone, he's good at taking them out and getting the pucks out quick. It's all really positive. We're happy to have him to say the least.”
Both Schultz goals were short-handed, including an empty-netter with 28 seconds left. His first goal, a wrist shot from the point, gave the Barons a 2-1 lead.
Schultz's assist was a pinpoint pass through traffic that set up Teemu Hartikainen's goal midway through the second period that gave OKC a 3-2 lead.
“It felt good out there,” Schultz said. “It's easy when you're playing a lot with Ebs and Nuge. They create so many chances. It was a fun game to play in.”
Schultz has shown since the day he arrived at training camp he's not only ready for the NHL but will be an instant starter for the Oilers. He's a potential future NHL All-Star.
He used a loophole to become a free agent last summer after his junior season at Wisconsin. Schultz, 22, signed with Edmonton in large part to play with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle.
“He's started the season off really well,” Eberle said. “He has a great shot. Something he's underrated for is how well he's able to put the puck in the net.”
It's only three games into the season, but no NHL defenseman averaged a point a game last season. Schultz has five points (three goals and two assists). It would be difficult to maintain that pace, but he's showcased his unique offensive skills the first week.
“You can see he's a special player,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “His pass to Hartikainen was a big-league pass. That's all fine, but I was happy with his defensive game. He had a good stick, he was in good position and had good reads. It was an outstanding effort.”
Oklahoma City outshot San Antonio 16-2 in the second period, but the game was tied 2-2 before Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle got untracked after going scoreless in two games last weekend in Cleveland.
Nugent-Hopkins recorded two assists, the first a pass to Schultz that led to the Hartikainen goal. Nugent-Hopkins' second assist was from his knees behind the net that set up Eberle in the crease for a 4-2 lead late in the second period.
“Anytime you get your first one it feels good,” Eberle said. “It's good to see that we kind of finished them off. That's going to be a big key for us going into third periods. It was a good effort tonight.”
Early in his pro debut, Schultz is showing he should fit in well with the Oilers' other young stars.
“The points are coming, but (in the AHL) defensively guys are stronger, faster and tougher for us to control them,” Schultz said. “It may look like it's easy for me, but it's definitely a challenge every night.”