Philadelphia, PA – When the Edmonton Oilers selected Russian winger Nail Yakupov with the first overall selection of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, they added yet another offensive weapon to a roster loaded with talented and highly drafted forwards.
Sooner or later, everyone felt, the Oilers were going to need to address the back end, but hardly anyone faulted the franchise for taking the well-regarded Yakupov.
Turns out general manager Steve Tambellini had an ace up his sleeve, even if he didn't know it. Edmonton got the talented, young defenseman it needed when it won the Justin Schultz sweepstakes, signing the 21-year-old to an entry- level contract.
Schultz was one of the most sought-after free agents despite having never played in an NHL game. He was selected in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Anaheim Ducks but never signed with the club. That made him an unrestricted free agent this past weekend after he spent the last three seasons playing at the University of Wisconsin. The blueliner led the Badgers with 16 goals and posted 44 points in 37 games.
"To have him select the Oilers at this time, I think speaks volumes to not only what people in the league, but players are seeing of the opportunity and the projection of what will take place here. So it's confirmation that good things are happening," said an excited Tambellini over the weekend.
Tambellini said the prospect of signing Schultz did not impact their decisions at draft as Schultz didn't make his decision to join the Oilers until recently.
Schultz's signing brings an end to a microscoped process that saw the youngster spurn the team that drafted him, becoming a bit of a public enemy in the process. His tactics to free himself from the chains of Anaheim were never a concern for Tambellini, who said he was not aware or did not ask Schultz anything about what happened with the Ducks.
"I am more than sure, as far as his character," he added.
For Schultz, he was just happy that the process came to a swift conclusion. He also put down claims that he was looking for an easy way to the pros.
"I think people thought I was looking for guarantees out there and that's not me at all," Schultz said. "That's never been me. I've always been a guy that's going to earn what I get and I'm going to do that here when I get to camp."
Regardless of how he got there, the 185-pounder brings a much-needed talent to Edmonton's blue line, one that isn't lacking youth but is short on game- changing talent. While Schultz was quick to mention he wants to fight for his roster spot, Tambellini sounded as though there is little doubt he'll be playing with the big boys this fall.
"He's obviously an offensive puck-moving defenseman that can bring the puck up the ice himself or move it," he said. "He'll obviously go through camp, get comfortable and get with a partner. (Head coach Ralph Krueger's) thinking of different combinations, but we'll find a spot for him."
While many may wonder why Schultz opted to sign with the Oilers -- a club that hasn't made the postseason since 2006 -- when he could have gone anywhere, and there was no shortage of suitors, the fact is that Schultz to the Oilers makes perfect sense. He instantly becomes the main cog of the defense while leaving the face of the franchise to the likes of Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first two of Edmonton's string of three straight first overall picks.
Schultz also gets to jump right into a young group that figures to be together for some time.
Phone calls from legendary Oilers Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey to the British Columbia native probably didn't hurt, either.
"I think it started with the young, talented players they have already and they guys they're bringing up and I saw myself having a long career with those guys and having a lot of success," said Schultz of what drew him to Edmonton.
Though Oiler Nation is currently celebrating the signing of Schultz, things are a little chiller down south with his former employer. Edmonton's gain was Anaheim's loss and Ducks general manager Bob Murray was left a little sour when all was said and done.
"We received no phone call from Justin Schultz," Murray said in a conference call on Sunday. "I'm more confused more than ever. I read everything, of course. I've moved on. I'm confused because, if he had it in his mind that he wanted to play in Canada, then OK. I get that. I'm a Canadian, too. But Eric Lindros when he didn't want to play in Quebec, he went to his team that drafted him and said, 'No, I'm not going to play there.' He allowed that team to make a move to get something for him. He told us numerous times he wanted to play with us. He needed to just tell us the truth.
"This is unfair, not only for the organization, but it's unfair for the Anaheim Duck fans. ... We're all aware of other players coming along that are in this situation. It's just wrong. I sure hope the NHL realizes they dropped the ball big time."
Lindros, of course, was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991, but forced a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Nordiques got a bounty in return, including the likes of Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci and Steve Duchesne, and the franchise has since won two Stanley Cups since moving to Colorado, while Philadelphia hasn't won a championship since 1975.
Of course, those titles won in Denver did little for the people of Quebec, but that's neither here nor there.
Lindros wasn't well received in return trips to Quebec, games that often saw Nordique fans dressing up like babies complete with pacifiers. Schultz doesn't figure to be a favorite when he returns to Anaheim, either.
"It was nothing ever to do against Anaheim at all," claimed the defenseman. "There are great people there and I enjoyed my time there. It was a matter of me having the option to choose where I want to play and playing in Canada has always been a huge thing for me. Growing up around the game here, you definitely see the passion up here and it was just an option and how I took it."
Only time will tell if Schultz was worth all of the hoopla, an absurd amount of bidding for a player yet to skate in an NHL game. But credit the Oilers for going all in and addressing a major need not long after deciding that trading down to take a defenseman in the draft wasn't worth passing up on Yakupov.
Now it is up to Edmonton's young core to produce on the ice, but the additions of another No. 1 pick and one of the top free agents of the summer should at least have the Oilers picking much lower in the 2013 draft.