Last summer, it was hard to imagine Justin Schultz facing any more pressure.
There he was - a gifted puck-moving defenceman who blossomed in the college ranks, declined to sign with the team that drafted him and became a free agent. He was free to pick whatever home he wanted and, one by one, teams came to his agent's office to lay out the pitch.
The coveted Schultz chose the Edmonton Oilers, hoping to be a building block for a team brimming with young talent, but one that hasn't made the playoffs since 2006. Edmonton hockey fans went nuts, celebrating a rare free agent coup, and Schultz found himself nervous and excited.
“It gave me goosebumps,” said Schultz, now 22, recalling what fellow young stars told him about Edmonton's Rexall Place: “Everyone loves their hockey here and it’s so much fun to play in this building."
Then came the lockout, which put everything on hold. Some players headed to Europe, while others skated wherever they could. And what of the Oilers? The team kept Schultz, and other youngsters, on the ice.
Budding star forwards Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went, along with Schultz, to Oklahoma City, home of the team's AHL affiliate. As lockout talks dragged on, the four emerging Oilers stars have been playing together. "That is definitely a positive for us to tap into," head coach Ralph Krueger said.
And they didn't disappoint. There was only one person who outscored Schultz in the entire AHL before his stint in the league ended this weekend: Eberle. Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, meanwhile, each averaged a point per game. Consider it the youngsters' extended preseason, one Schultz thinks helps.
“I think it’s kind of a blessing in disguise to play in the AHL, and, you know, play with guys like Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins, and make my transition a little easier,” Schultz said Tuesday, speaking softly while surrounded by a throng of journalists. It doesn't mean he's at ease with his sudden stardom. “I’ll be nervous. It’s going to be different here, playing in front of way more fans than I’m used to."
It's no surprise, then, that expectations are soaring in Edmonton. The Oilers are hoping to get off to a fast start, boasting talented, in-shape young players who can handle the gruelling pace of a condensed schedule. Those players say they're ready for the challenge.
“Since we’ve been playing in the Oilers organization this year, we’re going to be looked upon to lead right away, and I think we relish that,” said Hall, a 21-year-old winger.
It may be a tall order. The Oilers roster is nearly identical to last season's lacklustre squad - which also began with high expectations - with the exceptions of Schultz and Russian sniper Nail Yakupov, 19, this year's first overall draft pick.
With Yakupov, who played in Russia during the lockout, and Nugent-Hopkins, 19, yet to arrive in Edmonton, all eyes at Rexall on Tuesday were fixed on Schultz ("One minute before I got a Justin Schultz question," Hall lamented, tongue in cheek). The young additions will be under pressure to produce if the team is to turn around years of futility.
The Oilers finished 19th in scoring last year, 23rd in goals against, third on the powerplay (which Schultz is penciled in to join) and 14th on the penalty kill. Eberle believes they have the building blocks.
"It's just a matter of putting it in place. You look around the room, we've got a lot of firepower here," Eberle, 22, said Tuesday. The ensuing pressure to produce isn't lost on the scorers.
"We had a good start in the AHL, and everyone’s saying we’re going to have to lead this team, because we’ve been playing an NHL-style game. And we’re in Edmonton. Let’s face it, there’s always pressure when you play here," Hall added. "We’re going to have to play like we did there [in Oklahoma City], only better, to lead this team."
Eberle and Hall say they've been impressed by Schultz, despite having some reservations.
"A big thing that I was a little worried about is his defensive play," Eberle admitted. "But he's so smart and he's always in the right spot and has his stick on the puck. I don't think he gets enough credit defensively." Hall recalled their Oklahoma team scoring a shorthanded goal with Schultz behind the opposition's net. "He loves to jump in, and we'll probably have to recover for him a couple times," Hall said.
With camp expected to officially begin on the weekend, eyes will be fixed on the young stars, and Schultz's goosebumps endure.
He doesn't expect to maintain his AHL scoring pace. He's already played roughly as many games as he ever did in a college year, and doesn't know if he'll wear down. And he'll find this all out in Edmonton, with all its pressure - June's free agent frenzy, by comparison, might seem like nothing. Hall, for instance, said he's happy to be back, but enjoyed Oklahoma City and "the anonymity of playing in a city where they don't know who you are."
Schultz no longer has that luxury, and offered no predictions on how things will all turn out once the puck drops.
"It's hard to say," the soft-spoken defenceman told Tuesday's media throng. "I haven't even played a game up here yet."