SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers win Schultz sweepstakes

Defenceman Justin Schultz playing for the University of Wisconsin. (GREG ANDERSON/Wisconsin...

Defenceman Justin Schultz playing for the University of Wisconsin. (GREG ANDERSON/Wisconsin Athletics)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:22 PM ET

EDMONTON - It doesn't matter if Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini say the Oilers are on their way back.

It doesn't matter what the media thinks, either

And it doesn't matter how forcefully the fans in Edmonton defend their city.

All that matters, when trying to lift the Oilers franchise out of the gutter and attract elite level talent, is what hockey players have to say about Edmonton.

And for a good 10 years now, they've been saying 'No thanks.'

From Mike Comrie to Chris Pronger to Dany Heatley to Michael Nylander to Sheldon Souray, Edmonton's reputation has taken a horrible beating from players who either wanted out or didn't want to come in the first place.

That was then. This, if you listen to Justin Schultz, is now.

One of the biggest prizes on the open market, free to play for any team in the NHL, signalled the dawn of a new era Saturday when he chose the Oilers.

"This is such an important decision, not only for Justin, but for us," said general manager GM Steve Tambellini, beaming after the coveted Wisconsin defenceman picked Edmonton over the likes of Vancouver, New York, Toronto, Chicago and 25 other suitors.

"To have him select the Oilers at this time speaks volumes to what people in the league, the players, are seeing. It's confirmation that good things are happening.

"He was in a position to make what ever choice he wanted. It wasn't a financial decision, all teams could offer the same contract. It was where he wanted to grow as a player. And he chose the Edmonton Oilers."

This represents a major step forward in the evolution of the Oilers program. Three years ago a prize like Schultz wouldn't have even considered Edmonton.

Now, there's nowhere else he'd rather be.

"Look at the team they have now," he said, adding the chance to skate with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov proved too much to resist.

"Their young guys are turning into superstars and I want to be a part of that, to be able to play and have success with that group for a number of years is very exciting."

The market sold him, too, about five years ago.

"I grew up in Canada and wanted to play in a Canadian city. And watching the Oilers go to the Cup run (in '06), it looked like a pretty cool place to play. I fell in love right away.

"It's a great city, great people. I don't know who wouldn't want to play there. There are a lot of great organizations around the league but Edmonton was a great fit for me."

If you look at the Oilers now, what used to be their first line Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, could now be the third.

That's progress, and it's being noticed around the league.

"It speaks to what players are thinking, they can see where this is heading," said Tambellini, who might need to pinch himself after the last week. "We've added Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz to quite a group of skilled forwards. That feels pretty impressive."

Schultz says that Hall, Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Ralph Krueger made such great pitches that by the time Gretzky and Coffey phoned, he'd already made up his mind.

"Getting the call from the greatest player to play the game was pretty cool but I don't know if it swayed my decision at all. I always kind of knew I wanted to play there."

At no point, however, did anyone promise him a roster spot, or any sort of ice time.

"It was never about anyone guaranteeing me a spot, that's not who I am," he said. "I want to earn my spot. Edmonton was really clear about that. They said I had to earn my spot on the team. I don't want to be portrayed as someone who was looking for a guaranteed spot, that's not me."

They're not giving him the job, they're expecting him to take it.

"We believe he can step in right away and contribute," said Tambellini. "This is a significant piece for us."

Follow me on TWITTER.com/SUN_TYCHKOWSKI

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@Sunmedia.ca


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