This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Justin Schultz’s name began entering the general hockey conversation around the time of NHL free agency last summer when the comparative unknown from Kelowna, B.C. was suddenly listed with Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and others among the most sought-after free agents on the market.
Schultz, at 22, had never played a game in the NHL, but was available because of a draft technicality. All but a handful of teams made inquiries and were prepared to pay the maximum rookie dollars to get him signed.
Schultz could have gone to the Toronto Maple Leafs or to the Vancouver Canucks or to the Anaheim Ducks, the team that originally selected him 43rd overall in the 2008 NHL entry draft.
Instead, he chose Edmonton.
Edmonton, with its bitter winters. Edmonton, with its antiquated arena. Edmonton, with its dismal recent history – six consecutive years out of the playoffs, which included two 30th-place finishes and one 29th-place finish in the past three years.
Schultz picked Edmonton, because Schultz could see the future in Edmonton – and he believes that after a long fallow period, the Oilers are poised on the edge of greatness again. They have a roster, populated by rising young stars, that one day may return them to the glory years and maybe the winner’s circle.
It was an unexpected coup, coaxing a player with multiple options, to come to the Great White North rather than the sunny ocean shores.
“I wasn’t really trying to make my decision based on the best place to live or anything like that,” explained Schultz, in a telephone interview. “I wanted to go to a team where I fit in well and saw myself having some success – and obviously a team that was poised to win in the future. And that’s why I chose Edmonton.”
Not every team is prepared to adopt the scorched-earth style of rebuilding that the Oilers undertook three years ago. It happened at that juncture in their development – June of 2010 – because of an deep organizational rethink. The Oilers had fallen off a cliff that year, after two seasons of mediocrity, and general manager Steve Tambellini agreed that to rebuild it right, they needed to concentrate on developing high-end, home-grown talent, the same formula used to put their dynasty team together.
Apart from Wayne Gretzky, who basically came in the World Hockey Association merger, all the other significant pieces of the earlier puzzle – from Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, to Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, to Grant Fuhr and Kevin Lowe – came via the entry draft. Coffey, Lowe and Fuhr were all first-round picks and Messier was a third-rounder from the seminal 1979 draft class, a hometown kid from St. Albert that had slid under the radar because he’d failed to score a goal for the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers in his first pro season.
Lowe is now the Oilers’ president of hockey operations and he asked Coffey, his former teammate and the second-highest scoring defenceman in NHL history, to help recruit Schultz.
According to Coffey, he called Schultz and laid out the options succinctly:
“I said, ‘Justin, you’re 22, I was 19, but I was that young guy once. And if I had gone to Washington, say, in the pick ahead of the Oilers, who knows what would have happened? I said to the kid, ‘I gotta be honest with you. I’ve never seen you play, but I have seen a couple of the highlights on TSN. The way you play, you’re going to have more fun and your job is going to be 100 times easier when you’ve got good guys up front.’
“I said, ‘that to me is what the game is all about. Don’t worry about the money. Everybody’s going to give you the money. Everybody charters now. Everybody’s got this and that. Go to somewhere where you can put your mark on the game.’ ”