Eric Duhatschek

Edmonton Oilers go back to the future

The Globe and Mail

Rookie Justin Schultz has left no doubt that he belongs in the Oklahoma City locker room, registering 16 goals and 24 assists to tie for the AHL scoring lead with teammates Jordan Eberle. (Steven Christy/Steven Christy)

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

Justin Schultz’s name began entering the general hockey conversation around the time of NHL free agency last summer when the comparative unknown from Kelowna, B.C. was suddenly listed with Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and others among the most sought-after free agents on the market.

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Schultz, at 22, had never played a game in the NHL, but was available because of a draft technicality. All but a handful of teams made inquiries and were prepared to pay the maximum rookie dollars to get him signed.

Schultz could have gone to the Toronto Maple Leafs or to the Vancouver Canucks or to the Anaheim Ducks, the team that originally selected him 43rd overall in the 2008 NHL entry draft.

Instead, he chose Edmonton.

Edmonton, with its bitter winters. Edmonton, with its antiquated arena. Edmonton, with its dismal recent history – six consecutive years out of the playoffs, which included two 30th-place finishes and one 29th-place finish in the past three years.

Schultz picked Edmonton, because Schultz could see the future in Edmonton – and he believes that after a long fallow period, the Oilers are poised on the edge of greatness again. They have a roster, populated by rising young stars, that one day may return them to the glory years and maybe the winner’s circle.

It was an unexpected coup, coaxing a player with multiple options, to come to the Great White North rather than the sunny ocean shores.

“I wasn’t really trying to make my decision based on the best place to live or anything like that,” explained Schultz, in a telephone interview. “I wanted to go to a team where I fit in well and saw myself having some success – and obviously a team that was poised to win in the future. And that’s why I chose Edmonton.”

Not every team is prepared to adopt the scorched-earth style of rebuilding that the Oilers undertook three years ago. It happened at that juncture in their development – June of 2010 – because of an deep organizational rethink. The Oilers had fallen off a cliff that year, after two seasons of mediocrity, and general manager Steve Tambellini agreed that to rebuild it right, they needed to concentrate on developing high-end, home-grown talent, the same formula used to put their dynasty team together.

Apart from Wayne Gretzky, who basically came in the World Hockey Association merger, all the other significant pieces of the earlier puzzle – from Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, to Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, to Grant Fuhr and Kevin Lowe – came via the entry draft. Coffey, Lowe and Fuhr were all first-round picks and Messier was a third-rounder from the seminal 1979 draft class, a hometown kid from St. Albert that had slid under the radar because he’d failed to score a goal for the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers in his first pro season.

Lowe is now the Oilers’ president of hockey operations and he asked Coffey, his former teammate and the second-highest scoring defenceman in NHL history, to help recruit Schultz.

According to Coffey, he called Schultz and laid out the options succinctly:

“I said, ‘Justin, you’re 22, I was 19, but I was that young guy once. And if I had gone to Washington, say, in the pick ahead of the Oilers, who knows what would have happened? I said to the kid, ‘I gotta be honest with you. I’ve never seen you play, but I have seen a couple of the highlights on TSN. The way you play, you’re going to have more fun and your job is going to be 100 times easier when you’ve got good guys up front.’

“I said, ‘that to me is what the game is all about. Don’t worry about the money. Everybody’s going to give you the money. Everybody charters now. Everybody’s got this and that. Go to somewhere where you can put your mark on the game.’ ”

The Oilers of the Gretzky-Messier-Coffey era matured together and in their third season made a quantum leap forward – from 74 points in the 1980-81 season to 111 in 1981-82. They were off and running, the first of six consecutive first-place finishes in the Smythe Division. In the third of those, they won their first Stanley Cup.

So now here are the 21st-century Oilers, having assembled a team that looks good on paper and now just waiting to see how it translates on the ice, whenever the NHL eventually resumes play.

In the meantime, the Oilers have Schultz, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and until he left to join Canada’s world junior team, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, all playing for their minor-league affiliate in Oklahoma City this year. For most of this year, Schultz – a defenceman – has been leading the AHL in scoring, and Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins were in the top five.

“It’s tough that there’s no NHL this year,” Eberle said. “We’re heading in the right direction and I think this year would have been a great season for us to test where we would have been – new coach, bunch of new guys on our team. There really was a lot of excitement with this.

“It’s good we’re all down in Oklahoma playing together because we’re going to be the core guys in Edmonton, I believe. It’s good we’re gaining some chemistry off the ice.”

Two of their key pieces – Schultz and Nail Yakupov, chosen first overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft – have yet to play their first NHL games. Nugent-Hopkins has only 62 NHL games under his belt, after shoulder surgery caused him to miss 20 games last season, an injury which cost him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Hall has played just 126 games over two years because injuries derailed him at times, too.

The most accomplished of the lot is actually Eberle, who was 22nd overall in 2008, a player who slid in the draft because of concerns about his size. But Eberle’s darting style is perfectly suited to the new NHL, and last year, he had a breakthrough season, scoring 76 points, which left him tied for 15th with Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers in the NHL scoring race.

Eberle and Sam Gagner, who has shown flashes of skill – he had an eight-point game last year – were the only two of the Oilers’ young guns to stay more or less healthy last year and injuries undermined Ales Hemsky’s season at well. But with all hands on deck, and assuming normal development, they will be one of the most exciting offensive juggernauts for a while.

In determining when the Oiler turnaround might come – next year, or some additional years down the road – the two key question marks are the team’s defence and its goaltending. If the Oilers want to emulate the dynasty years, someone needs to play the part of Coffey – and thus far, Schultz has met the early expectations. His transition to professional hockey has been remarkably smooth. If that can spill over to the NHL, he will add some offensive pop to a defence corp that last year was led offensively by Jeff Petry, with a mere 23 points.

In goal, the Oilers are relying on 26-year-old Devan Dubnyk, who had a 20-20-3 mark last year, with a respectable save percentage of .914. Developing goaltenders is a notoriously capricious science and if Dubnyk falters, the Oilers may need to wade into free agency, or the trade market, to land a proven No. 1. But if Dubnyk evolves into that starter and the Oilers stay healthy, it is only a matter of time before all the time and effort they’ve invested in development pays dividends.

“Up front, they’re okay,” assessed John Garrett, a former NHL goaltender who now works as an analyst for Rogers Sportsnet. “They have all those young guys. They make mistakes, but they can score goals. They just have to get better on defence and in goal.”

Garrett played against the Oilers’ dynasty teams and says the key players to watch will Dubnyk and Schultz because they fill the Oilers’ greatest organizational voids.

“It’s a lot easier to play goal when you’re not expected to win,” said Garrett. “And so Devan Dubnyk now, okay, you might be expected to win. And the pressure’s on. So the goaltending is a big question mark in my mind. I don’t know whether he can or not. He shows signs every now and then that he could [be a No. 1 goalie], but you have to be consistent, and especially if it’s a shortened season.

“Then there’s Schultz. He’s leading the American League in scoring. So you say, ‘Is that just a product of playing with those NHL guys, Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, or is he that good?’ – because those are the two areas where they really need help. They need consistency in goal and they need a guy that can, not only make that first pass, but skate the puck out of his own zone. They haven’t had that.”

Schultz, who says Coffey’s phone call “was a big influence on me in making my decision,” is looking forward to the day when the lockout ends. Until then, he is doing what he can to make the transition from the U.S. college game to minor pro.

“I’m an offensive defenceman, so I wanted to come in and put up numbers,” said Schultz. “I think it’s been going better than I ever expected it would.

“But the dream is to play in the NHL. I feel whenever that time comes, I’ll be ready. Right now, we’re having a good time down here. We’re still improving so we’re going to be ready, whenever that time comes, to go up to Edmonton and play there.”

“We have all the right pieces,” concluded Eberle. “It’s just a matter of putting them together.”

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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