EDMONTON - Even after scoring an overtime winner in Abbotsford, Justin Schultz’s shoulders still sagged a little when he found out where he and the Edmonton Oilers should have been playing that Saturday.
If there wasn’t a lockout, Schultz, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov would have been in Pittsburgh’s splashy new arena, taking on Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins.
“It’s definitely crappy,” the prized free-agent catch said of the missed opportunity. “You want to be playing at the highest level possible and it’s my dream to play in the NHL, so it kind of sucks.”
For everyone. After watching six straight years of miserable, losing hockey, Oilers fans thought they finally had something entertaining and competitive to cheer for this winter.
And after spending their entire brief NHL careers in a cellar, Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins thought two more impact players might be enough to finally push this team into the sunlight.
With Yakupov tearing up the Russian league and Schultz needing about a week to establish himself as one of the best defencemen in the AHL, it would have been nice to see what the Oilers could do.
Instead, another one of Gary Bettman’s nuclear winters shelved everything.
If you hate this, Edmonton, you’re not alone: the Fab Five hates it, too.
“I feel bad for the fans because they know that these guys are coming in and how well they’re doing in the other leagues,” said Hall.
“It really does suck because I think this year, after I see how well Schultz and Yakupov have done, is really the year where we turn the corner and make some strides as an organization.
“There’s still a couple pieces that we need to add, but with the players we have now, the young players, born from 1990 to 1993, it’s a pretty tight span and all these players are all coming in with the same attitude — they want to win.”
Schultz and Yakupov were going to fill two of Edmonton’s biggest needs — an offensive defenceman and a sniper who loves to shoot the puck. The Oilers aren’t a finished product by any stretch, but this is a good start and they really wanted to see how it stacked up in Pittsburgh, New York or Vancouver.
“Hopefully it ends soon so we have enough of a season to prove ourselves,” said Hall. “Because I really think the guys we had coming in were going to make an impact.”
Being frustrated that they’re not in the NHL doesn’t mean they’re hating Oklahoma, though. Quite the opposite. The kids believe they have the best situation of the entire lockout landscape — playing together in a tough, North American league.
“I think it’s good that we’re all playing here,” said Eberle. “There’s a lot of the core pieces of the Oilers who are here that are going to be able to lead the team in the future. Hopefully getting some more wins and bringing that winning attitude back to Edmonton.
“Everyone wants the NHL to start, but the best-case scenario is that we’re here. Everybody recognizes that.”
Like the Boys on the Bus 30 years ago, they’re forging chemistry and friendships that will make them closer and stronger. Hall and Eberle live together in OKC, in the same building as roomies Schultz and Nugent-Hopkins.
It’s a lot better than being stranded down there by yourself.
“It’s building chemistry with the guys, not only on the ice but off the ice,” said Schultz. “We all get along well, we all hang out, we live in the same spot. It’s a great thing for us and we’re going to make the most of it.
“It’s definitely nice. We all have the same interests, we hang out together and I think it translates on the ice pretty well.”