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Above the 49: Oilers' Schultz will open doors for future free agents

Justin Schultz won't be asked to play savior for the Oilers this upcoming season, but his decision to sign in Edmonton is already being thought of as a potential franchise-altering moment.

The Oilers are hoping that last Saturday's signing of Schultz is an indication that Edmonton is ready to once again be considered a preferred destination for NHL players particularly once they hit the open market.

Edmonton has not had much in the way of success convincing top-end free agents to make the Alberta capital their home since the Oilers made their surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.

The summer following that unlikely run saw All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger, who had just arrived in Edmonton via a blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Blues the previous summer, dump the Oilers like a jilted bride by forcing a trade despite having completed just one season of a five-year pact he had inked with the club.

The Oilers have been trying to exorcise the ghost of Pronger ever since.

In the past seven summers since Pronger's departure from the Oilers, Edmonton has only managed to one lure one premier free agent via unrestricted free agency in Sheldon Souray back in 2007.

Souray, an Alberta native, had just come off a career-season with the Montreal Canadiens that saw him post 26 goals to lead all defenseman in the 2006-07 season along with 64 points, good for third place among all blue-liners behind only Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Pittsburgh's Sergei Gonchar.

Souray, ironically, would later join the ranks of disgruntled Oilers who wanted out just three years after signing in his home province, prompting a bitter divorce process that saw him spend the 2010-11 season in the minors before being bought out by Edmonton last summer.

The Oilers were also publicly spurned by another highly sought-after free agent in Michael Nylander the same summer they inked Souray. Edmonton believed Nylander had agreed to a contract with the club only to watch him subsequently sign with the Washington Capitals for less money.

In managing to lure Schultz, however, the Oilers are hopeful to have put their recent run of free agent disappointments behind them.

Schultz was easily the most sought-after commodity over the past weekend in terms of the sheer number of teams that had expressed interest in the defenseman from the University of Wisconsin. It had been reported that 26 NHL teams had, in one form or another, kicked tires on the former second round pick of the Anaheim Ducks.

Although the Oilers were known to be one of the teams in the running for highly-coveted blue-liner, who turns 22 on Friday, most believed Edmonton to be an underdog in the race behind teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, who boasted Schultz's former collegiate teammate Jake Gardiner, or the Vancouver Canucks, who Schultz was a fan of while growing up in Kelowna and playing for the BCHL's Westside Warriors.

The fact that Schultz spurned several teams' contract offers of similar, if not exactly the same, value - his base salary and bonuses were capped because of his entry-level status - to sign in Edmonton speaks volumes not only about the city itself but the team's perceived potential for future success despite the fact they've languished at the bottom of the NHL standings for the past several seasons.

Schultz picked the Oilers in large part because of the opportunity to join a tantalizing group of young stars all around the same age group in the likes of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, the latter who was the first overall pick by Edmonton in the most recent NHL Entry Draft.

The current group of Oiler youngsters has drawn comparisons to the Quebec Nordiques of the early 90's, who managed to assemble a tremendous wealth of young talent through years of growing pains and ultimately translated that into Stanley Cup championships as the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and 2001.

Whether the Oilers will be able to keep their core group together in the salary cap era long enough to enjoy similar success remains to be seen but they have reason to believe the future is bright and, for the first time in a long while, that belief isn't just limited to those within the organization which can only bode well for them in terms of luring talent to Edmonton in the foreseeable future.

Schultz is already proof of that.

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