A full month into his first professional hockey season, prospective offensive defenseman Justin Schultz is―so far, anyway―proving the skeptics wrong, including this author.
Granted, how well he has handled his transition from a collegiate athletic regimen to the pros will not become seamlessly clear until later. At least not until after he has surpassed the plateau of 50 games played since his days in the British Columbia League.
But so far, the Anaheim-turned-Edmonton farmhand is playing an irreproachable two-way game in the AHL. His Oklahoma City Barons have crammed their first 15 games into a span of 39 days, and he has stuffed a league-leading 21 points into that span, going pointless on only two nights.
Furthermore, he is doing this on a team that, owing to the NHL lockout, boasts the likes of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Translation: Schultz’s output is surpassing that of three strong colleagues, each with at least a full NHL season on their transcript.
Four years removed from going 43rd overall to the Ducks in the 2008 NHL draft and roughly four months removed from transferring his rights to the Oilers, Schultz is setting a solid tone to score on a rebound.
His projected path from the draft to the college ranks to a breakup with one franchise and redemption with another brings to mind two other young stars in recent memory.
While Schultz has yet to debut in NHL attire, the commonalities he shares with Jack Johnson and Blake Wheeler are already uncanny. All three went to a school that will soon be a part of the newfangled Big Ten hockey conference, and all three never got a chance to represent the team that had touted them in their draft years.
Wheeler went fifth overall in the 2004 draft to the Phoenix Coyotes, selected straight out of the Breck School in Minnesota. He spent the next four years with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and the University of Minnesota.
All the while, the afterglow of the pick faded, and in the late spring of 2008, Wheeler did to Phoenix almost exactly what Schultz did with Anaheim this past year. With one remaining year of college eligibility, he elected to turn pro but not with the team that drafted him.
In mid-June of that offseason, Wheeler found employment with the then-ascendent Boston Bruins. He immediately cracked the roster and tallied 21-24-45 as part of the team’s surge to first place in the Eastern Conference.
More recently, Wheeler has gone to a smaller pond in Winnipeg, where he topped the Jets’ charts with 47 assists and 64 points last year.
Johnson was chosen third overall by the Carolina Hurricanes roughly two months before enrolling at the University of Michigan in 2005.
While it is unclear whether or not the two events are related, Johnson eschewed an opportunity after his freshman year to join the Canes on their run to the 2006 Stanley Cup and then had his rights traded to Los Angeles. He subsequently signed with the Kings after his sophomore campaign and remained a staple on their blue-line brigade until he was dealt to Columbus before the 2012 trading deadline.
Johnson’s early impact on the Blue Jackets is not unlike Wheeler’s in Atlanta and Winnipeg. Appearing in 21 games during last year’s homestretch, he tallied 14 points and was ultimately one of only five Columbus skaters to retain a positive rating on the year with a team-best plus-five.
Based on how he has been handling the second-best league on the continent, it would not be unreasonable to envision Schultz making a comparable impact on the steadily rising Oilers in the not-too-distant future.
For what it’s worth, there is one other common thread between Wheeler and Johnson, albeit an outright trivial one that Edmonton will not necessarily strive to match with Schultz.
Odds are Edmonton is not next in line for a title. But at least much of their presumptive core for the long run is passing the time productively in the lockout, and Schultz is smoothly riding along his bridge to the NHL.
The way he is kicking ice chips over his Anaheim soap opera in the process, Johnson and especially Wheeler could surely relate.