“I think that Justin (Schultz) has Norris Trophy potential and I don’t think there are too many people who disagree with me in that regard.” — former Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish.
EDMONTON — The expectations that Justin Schultz and his handlers heaped upon his shoulders when he shunned Anaheim and became an unrestricted free agent back in 2012, only got worse when MacTavish uttered that fateful, flawed statement a couple of years later.
Today, Schultz is a shell of what 29 National Hockey League general managers fought over that June. He is playing out a one-year deal in Edmonton without a goal in 20 games, a so-called offensive defenceman whose point production has not come close to balancing the liability he has been in his own end through 223 career games.
“It’s what I’ve always done in college, junior…” Schultz said, when asked about producing points. “I’ve had trouble in the pro game doing it. I’ll keep working, try and get some confidence, and hopefully go from there.”
He’ll “try.” He “hopes.”
As we get to know new head coach Todd McLellan and new GM Peter Chiarelli, and begin now to understand how they prefer their players to carry themselves, we can conclude that a quote like this will not endear the player to his bosses.
The culling is underway in Edmonton, as McLellan and Chiarelli poke and prod to decipher which players have NHL skills, and which of them couple that with an NHL level of compete, commitment and courage. Who can you win with? Who is just along for the ride?
Schultz isn’t passing anyone’s test anymore, at either end of the rink.
“You’ve got to show up at the rink and be confident. You’ve got to believe you can do it. You’ve got to exude a presence, then you’ve got to go get it,” McLellan said of Schultz. “He’s got to bring that to the table.
“Play with some authority. He can do that, but he’s got to believe he can do it.”
There are different levels of soft, and there is no doubt that Schultz’s game in his own end is not of a hard one. In this sport however, the worst place to not have a hardened edge is in the mental game. Because confidence is everything, and if you’re merely “hoping” that you can find it or maintain it you’re not likely to have much swagger.
“Everyone goes through dips and spells,” said Taylor Hall, whose mental game has skyrocketed in the other direction this season. “You have to have a good self-belief system to help get you outta there. Confidence is huge. Every athlete in the world, it’s their main source of energy. Their main source of skill is confidence.”
Requiring a qualifying offer north of $4-million after this season, Schultz would have to overhaul every element of his game for the Oilers to extend a qualifying offer after this season. He’ll hit the market this July as a 26-year-old UFA, with much less fanfare than he did back in 2012 when the hockey world was stunned to see the hottest UFA prospect select Edmonton over every other team in the league.
“It was a lot to take in, especially coming into the league in a Canadian market. But … I don’t think it has any effect on me today,” he said of that high-profile process.
It didn’t raise the bar to a level that has been difficult to get to?
“Well, it might have done that. A little too high of expectations maybe,” he mused. “But, there’s not much you can do. It’s the world we live in with the media these days.”
We’ll stop Schultz there, if only to say that there would have been zero media circus surrounding a second round pick who simply showed up at Anaheim Ducks training camp that fall with the rest of GM Bob Murray’s draft class. The only reason we’re talking about Schultz in this light today is the fact that he hasn’t lived up to those expectations borne of 29 general managers fighting over him as if he were the next Drew Doughty.
That didn’t happen because of the media. It happened because Schultz and his agent, Wade Arnott, made it happen. They chose to use the out clause given to players who don’t sign with the team that drafted them within a two-year window. They chose to become the annual “best player outside the NHL,” and all the attention and expectations that come with that.
As a result, Schultz has been very well paid. What they didn’t count on was that Schultz would, in the end, become a below average pro player. But Fabian Brunnstrom’s camp thought he would be a superstar too, as did goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s when those two arrived as UFA’s, touted as team-changing acquisitions.
As it turns out, they don’t all turn into Artemi Panarin.