The lessons the Oilers should take from Justin Schultz’s development

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Justin Schultz has emerged as a focal point for much of the wrath directed at Edmonton’s ineffective blue line. Some of that is his fault; he lacks any kind of physical edge and has specific failings, particularly in the defensive zone.

Much of it, however, is the fault of an Oilers team that has done pretty much everything wrong in terms of how it’s handled the player. It isn’t Schultz’s fault the team encouraged unrealistic expectations, it isn’t his fault the team force-fed him minutes he wasn’t prepared to handle and he certainly didn’t hold a gun to the Oilers’ collective head and force the club to overrate him and underrate Jeff Petry.

It’s too late to fix those mistakes now. It’s not too late to learn from them.

Worth Reviewing

Darnell Nurse

We spend a lot of time on this site debating the ways in which the Oilers can immediately improve their blue line, but the truth of the matter is that the future of the defence corps rests primarily in the hands of some key young players currently in the system.

Oscar Klefbom had a spectacular debut with Edmonton last season and has physical gifts that are impossible to ignore. Highly mobile, gifted with the puck and blessed with size and strength, Klefbom is a complete player and the kind of prospect that just doesn’t come along that often.

The really incredible thing is that Klefbom may end up playing second fiddle to Darnell Nurse. Nurse has the same sort of skating ability, but is bigger, meaner and may be even more effective offensively.

Right now, Nurse and Klefbom look to be the rocks that Edmonton’s blue line will be built around. A veteran like Mark Fayne, signed to a long-term deal, may end up being a complementary piece. So too might a second-tier prospect like Martin Marincin, or a still-young NHL’er like Schultz. But it seems likely that whichever of those players stick long-term will be around primarily as supports on a blue line anchored by Nurse and Klefbom.

That makes it of paramount importance that the Oilers do things right with those two players, and it also makes it worth figuring out what the team did wrong with its last shiny, can’t-miss defensive prospect.

Development

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Development in hockey is one of those areas which gets broad attention but generally isn’t considered in particular depth, at least not publicly. Fortunately, a great deal of research has been conducted into the basic field of teaching people skills, and many of those principles can be expected to apply to teaching a young player the intricacies of the game. Consider the following, from the book How People Learn, put together by the Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning:

Humans are motivated to develop competence and to solve problems; they have, as White (1959) put it, “competence motivation.” Although extrinsic rewards and punishments clearly affect behavior, people work hard for intrinsic reasons, as well. Challenges, however, must be at the proper level of difficulty in order to be and to remain motivating: tasks that are too easy become boring; tasks that are too difficult cause frustration.

That last sentence is key: for optimal development, players need to be put in situations tough enough to challenge them, but not so tough that they are constantly failing.

It’s in line with the view expressed by Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland to Jason Farris in the book Behind the Moves. Detroit has become the gold standard for getting the most out of its prospects, and Holland makes no secret as to why, citing lessons learned during his time as a minor-league player:

The minute a young kid would play well for six weeks, he’d get [called] up and [provide] a little bit of spark [to the parent club,] and then six weeks later they would [be sent back] down and they were just beaten up. The league was too tough. They couldn’t make a difference. It took you another few weeks, few months to get those players back to where they [had been] confidence-wise and playing-wise. So from a player-development standpoint – a personal-development standpoint – [I learned that] people are ready when they’re ready and [I learned about] the importance of building a foundation.

Let’s go back now to how the Oilers handled star defence prospect Justin Schultz:

  • 2012-13: 21:26 TOI per game, second among Oilers defencemen
  • 2013-14: 23:20 TOI per game, first among Oilers defencemen
  • 2014-15: 22:36 TOI per game, first among Oilers defencemen

It was less of a “challenging but within the player’s grasp” situation and more of a “Justin Schultz, wolves; wolves, Justin Schultz” scenario. He stepped into the NHL and on to Edmonton’s top pairing immediately, and no matter how he’s struggled since he’s routinely logged 21-plus minutes per game.

Craig MacTavish6

Just for good measure, then-general manager Craig MacTavish made it clear that Schultz was expected to be not just a top-pairing defenceman, but a truly exceptional one. 

“[Schultz’s] potential there is absolutely in that group [with Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang],” MacTavish said last summer. “I think that Justin has Norris Trophy potential and I don’t think that there are too many people who would disagree with me in that regard.”

Learning from Mistakes of the Past

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The really frustrating thing with Schultz is that there really hasn’t been much progression in his game. His game has many of the same bugs that were evident during his rookie year; the lack of development from the player is a strong indication that the Oilers’ baptism-by-fire approach has been a mistake.

Which made MacTavish’s response this summer to a question about giving Klefbom some shelter as a young player all the more galling.

“When you talk about Oscar, I don’t think there’s one facet of the game where you can put him and hurt his development,” MacTavish said. “There are guys that I see that are just going to be really good players and potentially star players; I see that in him.”

Those decisions have since been taken out of MacTavish’s hands and handed to Peter Chiarelli, a veteran manager with an impressive track record. It’s going to be interesting to watch how he handles the young defencemen he has inherited.

Schultz’s experience offers some obvious suggestions. Bring players along gradually. Don’t pointlessly and unrealistically raise expectations. And when a player struggles, don’t be afraid to step down his responsibilities until such time as the struggles stop.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • WTF2

    Maybe my memory is fuzzy, but didn’t Justin Shultz sign in Edmonton because they promised him top-pairing minutes? If that’s what I think it means, then we can’t really fault our staff for not developing him wrong.

    Coaching and management were handcuffed because he ONLY wanted to sign with a team where he knew he could get top pairing minutes. As such it’s a special circumstance.

    Maybe Jultz knew he wasn’t up for it and signed his one big payday already? Guy is brutal at D. No shot. Poor vision. No fight……….

    I don’t think the list is nearly as long as it was for his first contract. Probably only a handful of teams would even look at him now. Of them, most would probably walk away.

  • Alsker

    Honestly i’m tired of arguing about this player. I agree his development route chosen was poor. But at this point they have 3 D men they need to rid themselves of N/F/S. Nikitin, Ference, Schultz. My guess is they accomplish getting rid of 1 and it’s likely Nikitin. Might as well roll the dice 1 more year on Schultz and see if he learnt anything from this past season.

    But for the love of god, they need to go big and get a 1st pair D this off season. OR they need to get 2x 2nd pairing d men. Get some support for Klefbom and likely Nurse. Then Scultz and Ference can get the 3rd pair min’s with Schultz getting the PP time.

  • Alsker

    Still comes down to that contract. Offer Jultz 3yrs @ 5.6-5.75 total. If he goes for it good, if not, we cannot have 11-12M tied up in 3 guys fighting for the 6/7 slots. It’s guaranteed failure.

    • CDNinATL

      One problem. You can’t do that according to the CBA. One of 3 things need to happen.

      1. He’s qualified at the same money he made last year (thanks MacT): $3.675 million
      2. We take him to arbitration and try and get a 15% decrease. We have to take what the arbitrator say or let him walk away let him be a UFA.
      3. We just let him walk and become a UFA.

    • Reg Dunlop

      Agree that 12 mil tied up in NN, Schultz and captain eco can’t happen but to qualify Schultz we can’t low-ball him like that. What if we let him test free agency and then sign him in August for 950k when he has received ZERO offers from NHL teams?

  • Chad

    He needs to get the ol furnace fired up. Hopefully there is something that can get him excited to play hockey. Right from game 1 he was just so blah and it was disgusting.

  • TKB2677

    The advanced stats guys will NEVER get over Petry as they love him. I fully agree that the Oilers defense would be better is Petry was on their team. However, I do not believe for a second the Oilers could have signed him up to a long term deal before the start of last season unless the Oilers grossly overpaid him. The Oilers were a bad team at the start of last season. They had been a terrible team for years before. Petry was going into his UFA season. Petry and his agent would have been stupid to sign a long term deal for anything less than 5 mill from the Oilers. The UFA crop for Dman is weak this season. Petry is one of the best Dmen available. Strictly because of the lack of supply, he is going to get close to 5 mill.

    Petry is not a 5 mill Dman. At best he is worth 5 4 mill. Hjarlmarsson for Chicago makes 4.1 mill. Hjarlmarsson is a better dman than Petry and Petry is going to make more than him once he signs is new deal. As much as the Oielrs need help on the blueline, they don’t need to be paying Petry more than 1 mill per yr more than he is worth. People will immediately say “Well Nikitin makes 4.5”. Yup, he sure does and it is a horrendous overpayment. As stupid of a deal money wise, at least Mac T wasn’t stupid enough to give him more than 2 yrs. Doesn’t make it much better but he’s gone after this season. Petry is going to sign a deal that will be 5 yrs probably in the 5 mill range which is crazy. The Oilers and past management made a stupid mistake in overpaying Nikitin but that doesn’t mean you make another mistake but signing up Petry to an overpayment over a long term.

  • Zarny

    IMO the Oilers have mishandled every one of their young players.

    They’ve routinely rushed players to the NHL before they were ready. Those who were NHL ready were rushed into tough minutes.

    Worst of all, the few who were ready for tough minutes were supported by an AHL roster. Since 2010, the list of Oilers no longer in the league is long indeed. Championship teams are characterized by depth. The Oilers have been the antithesis of depth.

    I’m sure attracting quality vets has been difficult and a factor. But imo Lowe and MacT had their impression of player development and progression tainted by playing with the likes of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Kurri, Andersen etc.

  • TKB2677

    Here is a question that no one seems to have asked especially the Petry lovers. With the new GM in charge, is everyone so sure that Petry is the style of Dman Chiarelli ultimately wants?

    One thing that Chiarelli has said is the Oilers need to be a heavier team and play a heavier game. Some of that is more size but most importantly, the Oilers need to be harder on the puck and battle more. I’m sure the advanced stats guys will quote some possession stat to try and say Petry is all that. But to anyone that doesn’t believe advances stats is god, Petry is not a hard player. He is not hard on the puck, he’s not hard in the corners, he’s not hard in front of the net. He’s not a player that plays with an kind of an edge. He is physical in that he gets a hit or 2 a game on the stat sheet but he isn’t a guy that you say “wow, he’s a good hitter” or a guy where teams say “keep your head up when he is out there.” As a Dman, unless you are an elite Dman, I don’t see how it is possible not to record at least 1 hit a game if you are playing any sort of defense. I’m sure people will debate me on that but part of a Dman’s job is to have to battle forwards for pucks. So if you are battling, it stands to reason you have to bump a guy a.k.a a hit to win a battle. Everyone rips Schultz for being a crappy defender. Well he is because he doesn’t battle and guess what, he rarely gets a hit.

    So if the Oilers had of signed Petry to a long term deal, I wonder if Chiarelli would have seen that as a positive? Saying he is better than Aulie, Nikitin, Ference, Schultz does nothing for me because those 4 aren’t every good Dmen. I’m talking longer term as in a few seasons when the Oilers are hopefully really good. Next season, would having Petry in the line up help. Sure, because he is better than the 4 guys I listed. But 2 seasons from now, I don’t see Petry being apart of the team especially if he was signed for 6 yrs at 5 mill.

  • mcjesus take the wheel

    Dear sweet Jesus. I just read back through the comments. It saddens me that most oiler fans on here have the hockey smarts of canuck fans. Most on here have no clue what they speak of.

  • TKB2677

    These young prospects need to learn to play the right way. Both Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse should start with the Bakersfield Condors next year. Let them develop at their own pace and don’t rush them to the big league. Call them up when they are ready in a few years and let them compete for a job. Opportunities have to be earned not given. This should be part of the cultural change this year. Every player, every coach, and every managerial personnel should be held accountable.

  • bradleypi

    If it was up to me I’d definitely move Shultz this summer. I’d be open to all offers and take the best I could get. Shultz can skate and move the puck well but I don’t like his compete, his battle and his zone coverage. He also turns over the puck and makes atleast one bonehead play per game. For me I don’t see an NHL d-man. I would fill Schultz roster with a veteran d-man and share some pp minutes among the other d-man and let them battle for the opportunity.

  • Tikkanese

    One thing that’s forgotten about Schultz’s ice time is that he plays a lot more after the Oilers are behind in the score. Even before Schultz has been an Oiler, the Oilers are behind in the score more often than not. JW has mentioned that in previous articles but not in this one for some reason.

    If PC can acquire a top pairing set of D and improve the team in other areas, the Oilers’ won’t be behind in the score as often and Schultz’s ice time will automatically drop.

  • Ready to Win

    I’ve seen all I need to see of Schultz to know the type of player he is regardless of the poor lack of development offered him from the Oilers, both sucked.

  • TKB2677

    Don’t discount the effect that MacT’s 80s Oiler pipedream of three scoring lines has on our defense and goalies.

    When we can count on 3-5 of our 12 forwards to really help out on D, there will be lots of mismatches.

    IMO, Schultz is a victim of his mistakes ending up in the net rather than other comparable players on teams with a better defensive structure and roster makeup having actual support.

    • bradleypi

      I completely agree. The 3 scoring line experiment was ridiculous seeing as how they barely had 1 line that could actually score. Just goes to show how dysfunctional this organization has been when Mact wants to run an offensive squad out there and stupid Eakins was trying to transform yak into a defensive specialist. Absolutely bizarre. If the roster stays status quo they could easily run the old fashioned 2 scoring lines centered by nuge and McDavid, a 3rd checking line centered by Gordon and an energy line centered by lander. That’s what I’d like to see. Throw jultz out there whenever the top 2 lines are out there when possible and that way you limit his defensive responsibility.