Justin Schultz isn’t a fully-formed No. 1 NHL defenceman just yet, so the Edmonton Oilers are giving him a chance to grow into one.
The Oilers agreed to terms with the 24-year-old on a US$3.675-million, one-year contract Friday that puts him in line to make him a restricted free agent again next off-season. Schultz said the one-year deal means he has to perform.
“I just got to prove that I’m worth that longer-term money and they want me here for a longer term,” Schultz said in a phone interview. “I want to be here and I’ve got to make sure I improve my defensive game and know I can play against other teams’ top lines without them worrying about me out there and being able to put me out in all situations.”
General manager Craig MacTavish said signing Schultz to a one-year deal was a chance to buy the organization more time to evaluate him. MacTavish added it was difficult to agree on a longer-term value given the small sample size of the defenceman’s career.
“We as an organization wanted a little bit more information, fully aware that information can be expensive,” MacTavish said at a news conference in Edmonton.
Schultz led Oilers defencemen in ice time in 2013-14 at over 23 minutes a game. His offensive numbers are no problem, as he put up 11 goals and 22 assists in 74 games.
The Kelowna, B.C., native, enjoyed the bigger role rookie coach Dallas Eakins gave him last season.
“I’m more comfortable,” Schultz said. “I felt as the year went on last year, I got better in my own end and on the penalty kill and all that. It’s always something I’ve got to work on. I think I’m improving and hopefully start this year off solid and keep ’er going.”
MacTavish took issue with the notion that Schultz was weak in the defensive end.
“I’ve always believed that he’s very good defensively,” MacTavish said. “He showed me at the end of last year that he really was managing the decisions that you need the experience to manage the decisions on when to go, when to stay back, when to probe offensively, when to get back.”
The Oilers won the Schultz sweepstakes in the summer of 2012 after the Ducks’ 2008 draft pick didn’t sign with Anaheim when he was done playing at the University of Wisconsin.
During the 2012-13 lockout, Schultz was the AHL’s leading scorer with 18 goals and 30 assists in 34 games for the Oklahoma City Barons. MacTavish said a rookie defenceman leading the AHL in points is something that only happens to great players and believes his ceiling is beyond great.
“I think that Justin has Norris Trophy potential, and I don’t think there are too many people that would disagree with me in that regard,” MacTavish said.
In 122 career NHL games, Schultz has 19 goals and 41 assists for 60 points.
During that time, the Oilers have continued their playoff drought, which dates to 2007, the year after Edmonton lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup final.
“It’s obviously a work in progress,” Schultz said. “I knew we weren’t going to win right away. But we’ve got all the talent in the world and it’s just a matter of time before we start turning things around.”
Beyond Schultz, the Oilers have been building around first-round picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
Schultz could soon be joined on the blue-line by 2013 first-rounder Darnell Nurse. For now, the Oilers defence is made up of Schultz, captain Andrew Ference, Martin Marincin, Jeff Petry, free-agent additions Mark Fayne and Keith Aulie and trade acquisition Nikita Nikitin.
Nikitin is the highest-paid of that group going into the first season of a $9-million, two-year deal that counts $4.5 million against the salary cap.
If Schultz can continue his career progression, he’s likely headed toward a much richer pay day. In the process, he hopes to help the Oilers make the playoffs.
“I’ve only had two years in the NHL,” he said. “It’s a big year for me next year, for our team.”