EDMONTON - Now that the Edmonton Oilers have secured their offensive future, the defence is next on their to-do list.
With Thursday's signing of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers have their three key forwards — Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — locked up for the next six or seven years.
The focus now shifts to Justin Schultz, the future of the team's blue-line who is in the final year of a two-year contract he signed as a free agent.
"Long-term, Justin Schultz is definitely going to be a key ingredient for us," defensive coach Steve Smith said after Friday’s skate. "Justin just has a natural gift to be an offensive player. He jumps into the play so well, he’s so skilled, he shoots the puck hard, he’s able to find open spots in the offensive zone and, quite frankly, he’s strong defensively."
The 23-year-old is still happy he chose the Oilers when several NHL teams were pursuing him and he sees himself being in Edmonton for a long time.
"All of us want to be here for a long time," said the six-foot-two, 185-pound Schultz, adding he’s not concerned about his contract. "Not worried about that at all. I have this year to play and we’ll see what happens."
What the Oilers see happening is Schultz leading the development of a number of key defensive players and becoming the face of that group, which is fine with him.
"You want to be one of those key guys," he said. "It’s nice to have the responsibility. We’re all a pretty young core group of guys and some veterans who came in who can help us."
But Smith noted it’s not just Schultz, who had eight goals and 27 points in last year’s 48-game shortened season.
"We’ve got a bunch of guys who compete real hard," he said. "It’s a hard-working group and there’s a lot of character in it so there’s a lot of promise moving forward."
He had particular praise for 25-year-old Jeff Petry, who Smith says carries the puck well and is "as pure a skater as there is the game as far as I’m concerned."
Smith, a former defenceman with the Oilers, was generally pleased with the way the defence played last year, although he concedes the team did struggle in its own end, partly because of the lack of commitment to defence by the young forwards.
"We had some good results offensively," said Smith. "Justin coming in definitely helped us in the offensive zone. And Jeff Petry is another one. They just have abilities that just aren’t taught. So you look at it and say both of those guys are pretty well-rounded players and the future is very bright."
Short-term, he said, the club bolstered its defence with the addition this summer of free agent Andrew Ference from Boston and Nick Schultz last year. Add a pretty consistent Vladislav Smid and the Oilers do have some steady veterans to help the youngsters.
Plus, there is young Darnell Nurse, their first-round pick in last spring’s draft.
"He’s raw and he’s got some steps to take to get the NHL level, but I have to tell you we’re really happy with what we’ve seen of him so far," said Smith.
The Oilers are home to the Vancouver Canucks in another pre-season meeting Saturday evening.