Edmonton Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini cautioned before the Barons season opener that rookie defenseman Justin Schultz might need a little time to adjust to professional hockey.
Turns out the American Hockey League is trying to adjust to Schultz's pro debut.
Heading into the Oklahoma City Barons' Field Trip Education game at 10:35 a.m. Tuesday against Toronto at the Cox Convention Center, Schultz leads the AHL in scoring with 16 points.
It's been a dozen years since an AHL defenseman has finished in the top 10 in scoring. No defenseman has ever led the league in scoring. Not even close.
“It's awesome to see he's so dynamic,” said Barons forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. “He's the kind of guy you want to get him the puck in the offensive zone. It's nice to have a D-man like that on the power play.”
Schultz has seven goals. He's the only defenseman in the top 10 in goals scored. His most recent goal was the game-winner 1:38 into overtime Saturday night against Abbotsford, a 2-1 OKC decision that ended a three-game winless streak.
“He's been impressive,” said forward Jordan Eberle, who led the Oilers in scoring last season. “He drives in and has his head up at all times. He's off to a great start, a great player.”
At age 22, the two-time All-American at Wisconsin is older than Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, the same as Eberle. The other three already have NHL experience and are the Oilers' No. 1 forward line that's playing in Oklahoma City during the NHL lockout.
Is Schultz surprised by his quick start that's included AHL Rookie of the Month and AHL Player of the Week awards?
“I'm just trying to play my game,” Schultz said. “I'm not trying to be something that I'm not. I'm just trying to go out there and do what I've done, the things that got me here. All the guys have made it really easy on me.
“They always find a way to get you the puck. It's unreal. You know when you're out there with them you're going to get chances. I'm having a blast. Hopefully it can continue and we can start winning a lot of games.”
Schultz's offensive talents — high hockey IQ, a lethal wrist shot and skills to drive to the net — are rare for a blue liner. His defensive game needs some work. But offensive defensemen are invaluable in the NHL, especially on the power play.
“I think you're seeing someone express themselves with natural instincts of how to play the game,” Tambellini said. “He's a very confident young man. A lot of things just naturally come to him. Obviously, there will be times it's hard for him and times to show his stuff. That's part of getting better.”
Schultz was a second-round pick of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2008. After his junior year at Wisconsin, Schultz used a loophole in the NHL collective bargaining agreement to become a free agent.
The entire NHL followed his decision last summer. If he was thrown back into the 2012 draft, he probably would have been one of the top two or three players selected.
Schultz chose the Oilers in large part to play with Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Hall, to join a talented young nucleus with a bright future.
“It was very overwhelming last summer, that's for sure,” Schultz said. “There was a lot of media attention, all the Twitter stuff and whatnot. I'm just glad to be playing. It's a chance to show what I have on the ice and get past all the off-season talk. I'm just trying to play my game.”
So far, his game has taken the AHL by storm.