“I think that Justin has Norris Trophy potential and I don’t think there are too many people who disagree with me in that regard.” — Ex-Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish.
OK. Player evaluation wasn’t MacTavish’s strong suit.
But Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney was also gushing that June day back in 2012 when Justin Schultz, who had refused to sign with the team (Anaheim) that drafted him and thus became a 21-year-old unrestricted free agent, chose Edmonton.
He was the apple of every general manager’s eye that summer (minus Bob Murray), and Schultz’s agent orchestrated a Lebron-like countdown, with teams falling by the wayside until only the Vancouver Canucks and Oilers remained. Schultz would take his talents to Edmonton to become the Paul Coffey of 'Oilers Dynasty 2.0'.
It was all coming together in Edmonton. Man, was this club going to be good.
“It’s proven that, all of sudden, it’s a much different place to play,” Whitney said that day. “It shows where we’re going, where we’re headed. Not only did every coach want the job here, players do as well.
"It’s got to be a big day for the whole organization and all of us players. It’s great.”
Whitney would play a grand total of 34 more games as an Oiler. Steve Tambellini, the GM who signed Schultz to his first contract in Edmonton, was fired after the season. MacTavish took over the rebuild. Today he scouts for the new GM Peter Chiarelli. His contract is up after next season.
And all those coaches that wanted to stand behind the Oilers bench?
Since June 2012 three have come and gone, and the fourth — Todd McLellan — could stand to see Schultz hop the boards no longer. He healthy-scratched him for what would have been Schultz’s final two games in an Oilers uniform.
They were two of the best defensive games the Oilers have played all season.
“I wasn’t sure about Justin. We gave him a one-year deal,” Chiarelli said after dealing Schultz to the Penguins for a third-round draft pick Saturday. “I know there are a lot of critics. I’ve seen a lot of players who have been booed … that go on and have a lot of success elsewhere.
“He had some value, he moves the puck. I know he doesn’t defend well, but he got caught on a lack of confidence.”
By the end, Oilers fans booed Schultz’s name after he’d assisted on an Oilers goal. That’s how sour it went for this prodigy from Kelowna B.C., who was so dynamic in the American League during the lockout (48 points in 34 games) that he still led AHL defencemen in scoring weeks after he’d joined the Oilers.
Schultz began his career as one of those defencemen who maybe aren’t so good at their own end of the rink, but make up for it with their work in the offensive zone. But playing for a losing team ground him down, and as he became more and more the cause of those losses, his confidence eroded further.
Schultz is a soft player, which is OK if you learn to defend positionally. He somehow never did learn that, and now a coach who couldn’t bear to watch Schultz’s defensive work found himself giving away power-play time simply to extract something from the player. Some value.
It’s the definition of a coach killer: The players who follow the system, defending with everything they had, buying in, would watch the sugar time go to Schultz. Then, at even strength he became a walking minus.
Inside the dressing room players know when another player is bad for business, and no matter how hard Schultz tried, he became a guy whose performance hindered Edmonton’s ability to win, rather than help it.
So we are left to ponder: Is it the fault of a dysfunctional organization, or simply a bad player?
Is Schultz just another Fabian Brunnstrom or Patrik Stefan? Or did the Oilers’ losing culture and carousel of coaches ruin him?
Chiarelli moved out two soft players on Saturday in Schultz and Teddy Purcell. The players who replace them will have their warts, but we’ll guess they’ll be competitive and play with courage.
A restricted free agent at season’s end, Schultz’s qualifying offer is set at about $4 million. So he will almost certainly become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Several general managers will consider signing him. None will tell you he has Norris Trophy potential.