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.”
Green said what makes Schultz stand out is he can impact both ends.
“He's so fast, he can get back in the defensive zone, too,” Green said. “There is some offensive defenseman out there, but not many that are good in their own zone, too. He makes a good first pass and then he's quick to join the rush and be part of the offense. That's a rare commodity.”
Schultz was picked in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft by the Anaheim Ducks. He chose to play an additional year of junior A hockey for the Westside Warriors near his hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia. Schultz then chose to play three years at Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder used a loophole in the NHL collective bargaining agreement to become a free agent last summer.
Edmonton didn't win a bidding war for Schultz, because his first pro contract exceed $925,000. Every NHL team basically made the same offer. Schultz chose the Oilers, an organization that hasn't made the playoffs the past six seasons.
“They have so much young talent here,” said Schultz, who had 44 points in 37 games last season for Wisconsin. “They have great coaches in the organization. I get to play in Canada. There were a lot of positives for Edmonton ... And it's great to get to play here in Oklahoma.”
Schultz grew up rooting for Vancouver, the closest NHL team. Edmonton is a 10-hour drive or one-hour flight. He also considered signing with Toronto, Ottawa, Minnesota, the New York Rangers and Canucks.
Where Schultz would land was a closely monitored, drawn out summer drama north of the border.
“It got out of control,” Schultz said. “I just wanted to make a decision, start my career and do whatever was best for me. I'm glad the season is finally here. It was a long summer. I can't wait to start playing and show what I have on the ice instead of off the ice.”
Schultz offered a glimpse of his skills last weekend, scoring a power-play goal in a preseason game against Houston at the Cox Convention Center.
“Exhibition games and real games are a little different,” Schultz said. “It's going to be a lot more intense, especially on the road. I'm looking forward to getting my first game under my belt.”