Justin Schultz returns to Edmonton as an elite offensive defenceman

Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan talks about how happy he is for the success one of his former defenceman is having with his new team, Justin Schultz. Courtesy of Oilers TV.

When an organization makes as many bad decisions — year, after year, after year — as the Edmonton Oilers did during their eternal rebuild, sometimes even the good ideas go sour.

Take Justin Schultz, who stands as collateral damage on a team that stuffed its sack with so many rotten apples that even low-hanging fruit like Schultz became tainted.

“I obviously didn’t play well at all when I was here, especially near the end. I needed a change in environment,” said Schultz, who returns to Edmonton for a Friday night game with the Pittsburgh Penguins as the NHL’s fourth highest-scoring defenceman (12-33-45). “It was tough. I remember near the end, being pretty down. Luckily, I got a good opportunity to go elsewhere.”

Then-Oilers GM Craig MacTavish did well to recruit Schultz back in the summer of 2012, when Schultz — who had been drafted 43rd overall by Anaheim in 2008 but did not sign with the Ducks — was that NCAA free agent being courted by 29 NHL clubs.

MacTavish would later utter this quote, however: “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,” too early in Schultz’s career. It dogged Schultz, and was followed by the many flawed personnel decisions by MacTavish and his staff that helped to turn a prime offensive defenceman into a player who would require a ticket out of town to flourish.

“It was unfortunate, I saw a lot of value in him as a player,” said Oilers veteran Matt Hendricks. “A ton of skill. His skating ability… He had a lot thrown at him at a young age. He was out in positions that he just didn’t shine at.”

From his spot down the wall in the Oilers dressing room, Hendricks watched Schultz’s confidence steadily erode. A chance-taking defenceman by nature, Schultz found himself on a team where every poor decision was punished by a goal against. It crushed his hockey soul, and ruined him as an Oiler.

“It’s an accumulation of a lot of things,” Hendricks said. “The forwards weren’t good enough, the defencemen weren’t good enough, the goaltending wasn’t good enough. Nobody was having career years here.”

Whereas today’s young defencemen in Edmonton have a proper goalie in Cam Talbot to tidy up after their mistakes, and partners like trusty, responsible Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, or a pro like Andrej Sekera to lean on, MacTavish fitted Schultz with blue-liners like Anton Belov, Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne and Martin Marincin. In goal was a list of hopeless netminders, in front of whom nearly every mistake would result in a minus.

Sure, Schultz bears some responsibility for fizzling out in Edmonton. But the evidence in Pittsburgh, since he was dealt at the 2016 deadline, exonerates Schultz and damns the Oilers.

“When I came (to Pittsburgh),” the 26-year-old said, “they played me to my strengths, against third and fourth lines. It worked. Now I’m feeling comfortable playing against top lines.”

Oilers head coach Todd McLellan came in midstream. He found a player who simply could not be rehabbed without a trade.

“We tried a number of things,” said McLellan, whose first season in Edmonton would be Schultz’s last. “We wanted him to feel as if we believed in him. Give him opportunities, work with him. More of a hug environment than a kick environment. We felt he needed an arm around him … but there were a lot of kicks coming from other places too. Sometimes you’ve got to get away from it, find a different spot.”

Schultz became the whipping boy for Oilers fans, booed merely for handling the puck. Today Schultz has captured that elite offensive-defenceman role that everyone saw for him coming out of the University of Wisconsin. The product of a solid, functional Penguins organization, he has turned things around, which says a lot about the kid.

“Confidence,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz’s roommate in Edmonton who hosted him for dinner on Thursday night. “When you’re on a good team, you’ve got a lot more confidence, no matter what. He lost his confidence.

“We knew how good he could be. When he first came into the AHL he lit it up. It was crazy. He could break the puck out like butter every single time,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “(Schultz’s success) is tough to see, in some ways. But it’s great to see for him, personally.”

With the third-round draft pick accrued from Pittsburgh in the Schultz trade, the Oilers drafted a 6-foot-3 Swedish defenceman named Filip Berglund. He’s 19 now and still playing at home for Skelleftea.

Will he play?

Well, this much we know for sure: he’ll have a better chance of survival in Edmonton than Schultz did.

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