Justin Schultz could have signed with any NHL team. The two-time All-American defenseman from the University of Wisconsin chose Edmonton because of the Oilers' young nucleus built around rising stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.
Schultz makes his professional debut Friday night. But it won't be with the Oilers. Schultz will be playing with two-thirds of Edmonton's No. 1 line in front of him when the Oklahoma City Barons open the American Hockey League season at Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio.
Still in entry-level three-year contracts, first-round picks Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle will play with the Barons during the NHL lockout.
“Some people might look at it as a negative, but I look at it as a positive that I start my pro career here,” Schultz said. “At least I'm playing hockey. It's a blessing in disguise for me.”
Schultz said it's invaluable to play with the organization's cornerstone players. Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle already have combined for 171 points in 209 NHL games.
“There's a ton of young talent down here from the Oilers and from the Barons,” Schultz said. “It's a chance for me to grow and play a number of years with these guys. Hopefully, I'll have a lot of success and we win a few (Stanley) Cups.”
Schultz, 22, is older than Nugent-Hopkins (19) and the same age as Eberle (22).
Schultz is a potential difference maker, a rare highly skilled offensive blue-liner.
But Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini cautions the AHL is a much higher level than college. During the lockout, the AHL is touting itself as the best hockey league in the world.
“I want to temper it a little bit because it's his first time to play professionally,” Tambellini said. “There will be a transition time. His skill set is obvious. He has great wheels. He's a player that cannot only pass the puck up quickly but he can skate the puck up quickly.”
And his defense?
“He'll adjust as a pro on that aspect of it,” Tambellini said. “But offensively, he's an elite player, for sure. He has high-end skills, so he's going to be a top power play person for sure.”
Barons captain Josh Green, 34, has played for eight NHL organizations and seven AHL teams. Green said Schultz, who played 30 to 35 minutes a game in college, has a unique skill set. Schultz could have immediately joined the Oilers if there wasn't a lockout.
“He has all the tools to be a highly successful player,” Green said. “He's quick. He's a real strong skater. He moves the puck real well and is really smart on the ice. He's a dynamic player with a lot of offense in his game.”