It’s not always easy being a bona fide NHL prospect.
It’s not easy when you have chosen the NCAA route over the junior route, reducing your options to the all-or-nothing proposition of staying in school or turning pro.
It’s not easy when your best friend and defense partner in college was drafted in your same class by the same NHL team -then traded two years later, prohibiting you from continuing your journey together side-by-side into the pro ranks.
This was the scenario facing Ducks prospect Justin Schultz, who had to watch from the University of Wisconsin, Madison while Jake Gardiner was traded from Anaheim to Toronto, then signed an entry-level contract this year.
While Schultz was named one of 10 Hobey Baker finalists, Gardiner went on to impress observers during a 10-game stint with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate at the end of the season.
For Schultz, staying in school might not have been an easy choice. But it’s choice, and he’s sticking to it.
“Yeah, I think definitely I believe I could do it if I wanted,” he said of turning pro. “But I really feel like I want to play in the AHL next year and get ready so I can make the jump right to the big club.”
Schultz looked like a man among boys — more mentally than physically — during an intrasquad scrimmage last Thursday at the Ducks’ rookie conditioning camp.
Among the campers are two players who finished last season in the AHL: defenseman Mat Clark and goalie Igor Bobkov (who did not participate in the scrimmage). Schultz, who turns 21 on Wednesday, did more than fit in. The second-round 2008 draft pick showed the same decision-making, skating and stick-handling skills that allowed him to score 18 goals from the blue line last season. In 41 games, Schultz led the Badgers in points (47) and was second in both assists (29) and goals (18), which is virtually unheard of from a defenseman.
Speaking of his individual success, Schultz sounded modest to a fault. “I attribute that to my teammates,” he said. “Gardiner, Brett Smith – any of them could be on the (Hobey Baker finalist) list, too.”
All modesty aside, only two things stand out at a glance as separating Schultz from the pros.
One is his size. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, the Ducks want Schultz to fill into his frame a little more.
“They’ve been telling me that since I got drafted,” he said. “Hopefully this is the summer I can get [weight] on and it just stays there.”
Schultz believes the shorter college season will allow him to spend more time packing on weight in the gym, and less time burning calories on the ice.
From a physical standpoint, a good comparison might be Luca Sbisa, who could skate smoothly and handle the puck from the moment he reached the NHL, but didn’t gain an NHL player’s physique until last season. Not coincidentally, Sbisa played a career-high 68 games in the league last season, and became a constant physical presence in his own end.
The other is Schultz’s own imperative.
“They [the Ducks] offered me a little,” he said, “and I just kind of made my choice and they respected that.”
Next season, Wisconsin will be a younger team and Gardiner will not be partnered with Schultz on defense. If Schultz’s gaudy numbers go down it would not be surprising, but statistics can’t be considered the focus anymore. Schultz has already proven himself as a legitimate prospect; otherwise the Ducks wouldn’t have offered anything.
The goal is to become an NHL-ready prospect as soon as his senior season is over.
“For me, the biggest thing for me is getting stronger this summer in Madison and during the year,” he said, “then working on my defensive game throughout the year.”