- Craig Custance
The Edmonton Oilers haven't had the most success luring free agents in recent years. And it wasn't that long ago Minnesota Wild forward Dany Heatley blocked a trade that would have sent him to the Oilers.
The Justin Schultz decision shows how things are changing in Edmonton. He had his choice of 30 NHL teams and chose Edmonton. It wasn't a matter of money, with CBA rules limiting each team's offer to an entry-level deal with bonuses. It was about opportunity and the future, with a bit of the past mixed in. Oilers greats Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey helped in the recruiting process.
"Justin just felt Edmonton was the best fit for him -- terrific opportunity with a young emerging group of players he can grow and enjoy future success," wrote Schultz's agent, Wade Arnott, in an email. "It was a difficult decision for him as many teams showed many positive attributes. But at the end of the day he could only chose one team he could attempt to earn a position and play for next season."
The Oilers already had the league's No. 3 power play, converting at a rate of 20.6 percent last season. With Schultz expected to get heavy minutes on the power play, this could propel Edmonton's into being the league's most dominant power play. He should also significantly help a team that was in the bottom third of the NHL during 5-on-5 play last season.
"Skill-wise, he's ready to play now," said one NHL scout who saw him multiple times over the course of the past two years. "If you look at the young elite defensemen in the NHL -- [Jake] Gardiner, [Cam] Fowler, those type of players -- this guy is all that. Maybe more. This guy is a player."
The only consistent knock on the defenseman who has been heavily scrutinized this week is that he's not a physical player and needs to add some size and strength before being able to consistently defend NHL players.
"He's not a hard guy. He's not a hard defender. Never will be," the scout said. "He's a stick guy. As he gets stronger, he'll get more confident in his physical game."
But even in his current form, the former Wisconsin Badger gives the Oilers a piece they desperately need. They have franchise forwards in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and now 2012 No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov, but not a comparable young player coming up on defense. This changes that immediately. The Schultz addition also makes GM Steve Tambellini's decision to pass on Ryan Murray and take another forward in the draft look even more wise than it did a week ago.
There's a steep learning curve breaking into the NHL on defense, but at 21 years old, Schultz is older than Hall and Nugent-Hopkins and the benefits that came with playing another year of college hockey involved more than just being allowed to hit the open market. His game improved over the past 12 months.
"He's a much better player now in terms of his play without the puck," said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. "He wins battles in the corner. Now, he's going to another level. There's going to be an adjustment time."
Aside from the Oilers, the biggest benefactor in Schultz's decision could end up being Florida Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison. Teams like the Vancouver Canucks had preferred Schultz because of his reasonable price tag and upside, but now the Canucks will have to spend serious money in free agency if they want to upgrade on defense, with Garrison an option to play closer to home.
The Ottawa Senators were in the mix for Schultz, and Bruce Garrioch reports that they've already started shopping some of their forward depth in hopes of landing a defenseman since they missed out on Schultz and will likely lose Filip Kuba in free agency.
The New York Rangers were also in the discussion, and adding Schultz would have made it much easier to include a defenseman like Michael Del Zotto in a trade for Rick Nash. It could still happen anyway, but GM Glen Sather can't be too eager to thin out one of the team's strengths.
And as late as Thursday afternoon, the Detroit Red Wings thought they had a decent chance at landing Schultz despite his preference to play in Canada. Now more and more it's looking like the Red Wings have to land Ryan Suter for this offseason to be a success, since Plan B is looking less and less appealing. They've lost options in guys like Barrett Jackman and Dennis Wideman in recent weeks, and Schultz would have been a fantastic young piece to plug in with Brendan Smith.
If the Red Wings don't land Suter, they'll have to look hard at Matt Carle, Garrison, Sami Salo, Bryce Salvador or one of the other available free-agent defensemen in a free-agent class that is thinning out awfully quickly.