When browsing the list of AHL scoring leaders, one likely encounters the names of many young guns that they expect to see: Eberle, Hall, Niederreiter, Schenn, Nyquist, Connolly etc… All of these players save Nyquist were first round picks, and all six have spent time in the NHL with varying levels of success. However, there is one name that pops out at the top of this list. He is a guy who before October 12, 2012, had never played in a professional hockey game. In his first professional season, this man, Justin Schultz leads the AHL in assists with 30, and is second only to Oklahoma City teammate Jordan Eberle in scoring with 48 points. Cam Atkinson checks in at 3rd, 10 points behind Schultz. Perhaps most importantly, Schultz is a defenceman.
Schultz hasn’t come out of nowhere. He was a second round pick of the Ducks in 2008 who did not sign, and was the subject of a whirlwind recruitment this past summer. He eventually chose the Edmonton Oilers after the franchise sent Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey to meet with the young college product. Following his signing and due to the NHL Lockout, the 22 year old Schultz was sent to Oklahoma City along with a bevy of talented young Oilers. Since then, Schultz has logged significant minutes and done nothing but impress. Take this praise from Oklahoma City Head Coach Todd Nelson:
“He has parts of Niedermayer and one player he reminds me of is Drew Doughty. The NHL is a step higher, but I see him doing the same thing up there. Maybe not as explosive in his first year, but I see him contributing offensively. I see him playing a lot of minutes, just as he does here — and he plays about 30 minutes a game, handles it well.”
Opposing coaches, such as Jeff Daniels of the Charlotte Checkers are quick to notice the way he is able to jump up in the play and provide a second wave of offence, as evidence by his gaudy point totals.
“His biggest asset is the way he reads the game offensively. The way he joined the play, he wasn’t trying to go end-to-end with the puck. He was just jumping at the right time whether, you know, going to the net and trying to go backdoor … just kinda being that, you know, we call it the ‘second wave’ on the offense off the rush. He’s just a very smooth skater.”
Despite his offensive performance, Schultz isn’t neglecting his work in his own zone, as evidence by his +8 rating. Often times in the AHL or lower you will see players with impressive point totals but terrible a +/- rating, as they are one dimensional players. Although no one will ever confuse him with Nik Lidstrom in his own zone, and he still has a lot of work to do, from a fantasy perspective you probably don’t have to worry about him being one of those guys who you roster to rack up points at the expense of +/-.
Another boon to fantasy owners is that Oilers Head Coach Ralph Krueger has suggested Schultz will be manning the point on the top power play unit with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. 25 of his 48 points in the AHL have come with the man advantage, a percentage that should hopefully translate to the NHL.
However, it is not all good news for Oilers fans and fantasy owners. While Schultz is putting together this performance against an elevated talent level in the AHL due to the lockout, perhaps no team was infused with as much NHL caliber talent as Oklahoma City, which has been the beneficiaries of playing time from Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who have combined for 266 points in 335 career NHL games. Schultz has spent a lot of time on the ice with these players, especially on the powerplay. While coaches and talent evaluators have raved about his skills, which are less about the players around him, when quoting the stats, we must acknowledge the fact that he has three of the most talented players in the league on his team.
Currently, Schultz has an ADP of 150.4 on Yahoo!, making him on average the 47th defenceman off the board, behind such offensive luminaries as Andrew Ference (180 pts in 712 games). Anybody who expects Schultz’s NHL production to mirror his minor league performance is crazy, but 25-30 points in a compressed schedule is not out of the question. Last season, 24 defenceman played minimum 41 games and averaged over half a point per game. If we think that that is an attainable goal for Schultz, his ADP is several rounds too low.
There is always risk drafting a college player with little professional experience (hello Matt Gilroy), but unlike Gilroy, Schultz was able to get his feet wet in the AHL and use that time to gel with his new, young teammates, an experience that Gilroy was not afforded as he jumped straight to the NHL. Given his age, supporting cast, opportunity on a young high-flying team, and skills, Justin Schultz could be a key addition to your fantasy team on draft day.