Three seasons ago, during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, rookie defenseman Justin Schultz came straight out of the University of Wisconsin to tear up the AHL for 18 goals and 48 points in 34 games. When the Oilers’ season opened, he joined the club, scored eight goals and 27 points in 48 contests and looked on the verge of NHL stardom.
With that in mind, it’s hard to believe that three seasons later, after playing through an entry-level pact and a one-year, $3.675 million contract, Schultz and the Oilers have yet to come to terms on a new deal. It would have been even more difficult to picture a scenario during Schultz’s rookie season in which, three years later, the Oilers would themselves be electing to take him to arbitration. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened.
According to TSN’s Ryan Rishaug, the Oilers filed for club-elected salary arbitration with Schultz Monday afternoon, though, Rishaug noted, it doesn’t exactly mean the two sides will end up in arbitration hearing. There’s still the possibility they reach a deal.
However, with arbitration on the horizon, it’s clear the issue between the two sides is payment and term. The Oilers likely want to bring Schultz back, as it’s hard to find 25-year-old blueliners with the potential offensive upside that he has, but they probably don’t want to pay too steep of a price. Considering that Schultz saw his ice time slip in 2014-15, had the least productive season of his short professional career and continues to be heavily sheltered in order to not be exposed defensively, Edmonton might just have a case.
This past season, 60 blueliners played upwards of 1,250 minutes at 5-on-5. Of them, Schutlz ranked 20th in shot attempts for percentage relative to his teammates. While that looks promising, it’s less so when you factor in that Schultz, at 22.2 percent, was the only defender of the 60 to start fewer than a quarter of his shifts in the defensive zone. On top of that, Schultz had the second highest percentage of neutral zone starts at 40.1 percent and fourth highest offensive zone starts at 37.7 percent. Suffice to say, Schultz isn’t yet trusted completely in the defensive zone and his shot attempts for percentage is bolstered by favorable minutes.
The Oilers’ wariness about Schultz in his own end is further illustrated when considering how he was used in the 2014-15 campaign. Of all Oilers players, only two, total, took a higher percentage of favorable zone starts than Schultz: Jordan Eberle and Leon Draisaitl. One is an offensive-minded pivot and the other was a rookie sent back to the WHL after a 37-game stint that torched a year of his entry-level deal. And while a handful of other players faced weaker competition, none did so while playing quite as many minutes. That’s not exactly a feather in Schutlz’s cap.
There’s also the matter of the Edmonton blueline, which at one time was bereft of NHL defensemen but now boasts Andrej Sekera, Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Andrew Ference, Eric Gryba with young guns Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse on their way. If he can’t pick up his play or prices himself out, there might not be a spot in the future for Schultz, which could also be one of Edmonton’s concerns.
If the Oilers and Schutlz are to come to an agreement, it might not be a favorable one for the young rearguard. But 2015-16 could be his time to prove that he’s more than worth every penny Edmonton will shell out to keep him.
But if his game slips again next season, Schultz might be the odd-man out on an increasingly crowded Oilers back end.