PITTSBURGH – After spending the past two days picking 211 players in the NHL draft, all 30 NHL teams will turn their attention to just one young and talented asset. And when it comes to University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz, it’s not hyperbole to suggest we can expect a feeding frenzy.
The Kelowna native who turns 22 on July 6 is one of the best young players outside the NHL today. And the 43rd overall pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2008 will become an unrestricted free agent Monday morning. All 30 teams in the league, including the Ducks who will lose his rights when he doesn’t sign with them Monday, will be in hot pursuit over the next week. Although Schultz cannot actually sign a contract until July 1, he can begin negotiating Monday. Expect the offers to come pouring in shortly after Schultz and his agent, Wade Arnott of Newport Sports, plot their strategy in a meeting Tuesday.
“This one is going to be just as big as the (Zach) Parise and (Ryan) Suter,” an NHL executive said, “ because of the economics of it.”
The thing about Schultz is that money will not be the issue here. Every team that makes an offer on him will do so knowing it will have to absorb a $3.8 million salary cap hit next season – $925,000 in base salary and signing bonus, $850,000 in ‘A’ level bonuses (for achievements such as scoring 10 goals, 25 assists, 40 points, 0.49 points per game and others) and $2 million in ‘B’ level bonuses (for elite performance such as finishing among the top 10 defensemen in goals, assists, points or ice time or being a finalist for the Norris Trophy) – on a two-year deal.
So what it comes down to are other issues that relate more to where he feels more comfortable and where he gets the best opportunity to play. No defenseman has ever maxed out on his performances bonuses as an entry level player and in order to do so, Schultz would likely have to go to a team where he’ll be able to play a lot and get substantial time on the first power play. If that’s what he’s looking for, teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Edmonton Oilers might be a good fit. If he’s looking to play close to home, the Vancouver Canucks, Oilers, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets would appear to have the inside track. If he’s looking to play with former Wisconsin teammates, the Toronto Maple Leafs (with Jake Gardiner) and the New York Rangers (Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan) would be a good fit.
None of that has been determined yet, which adds another layer of intrigue to a player that already comes with a fair share of mystery. The problem is other teams have not been able to even approach him to this point because they’d be guilty of tampering.
“Nobody knows why he won’t sign with Anaheim,” said one NHL scout. “Nobody knows what he wants or where he wants to sign.”
That will become clear in the coming days. There has been speculation Schultz is looking for a guarantee he’ll be on an NHL roster next season, but the reality is no team can do that. Every entry-level deal, without exception, must be a two-way contract, meaning it is subject to a minor league salary of $67,500 if he doesn’t play in the NHL.
And as good as Schultz is, there will be some growing pains along the way. As evidenced by his 18 goals and 44 points in just 37 games with Wisconsin, Schultz has a special offensive component to his game. He probably has the poise and skill to quarterback an NHL power play now, but he’s not a particularly physical or developed player and playing against college players who are in their teens and early 20s and competing against men who are NHL veterans represents an enormous adjustment for any young player.
“Anyone who thinks this kid is going to just jump in and be a top-four defenseman with no adjustment period, well, that’s just not the norm,” a scout said. “I think he’s going to make the jump, but it might not be the prettiest jump.”
But that will not deter teams from making a furious pitch to get him. They look at it this way: Schultz is probably as good a bet to be an impact player in the NHL as most of the first-rounders who were picked in the draft this weekend. And since acquiring him won’t cost teams any assets and $3.8 million in cap space, it’s a worthy pursuit. Even if he doesn’t come in and make an impact right away.
“Teams are going to love this guy in three or four years,” a scout said.
THE DAY AFTER
New Carolina Hurricane Jordan Staal confirmed Saturday that the main reasons for his departure from the Pittsburgh Penguins were his desire to have a more offensive role and to play with his brother, Eric. And he’ll get both of those starting next season.
“With the 10-year offer (that the Penguins made before they traded him), it was kind of in the back of my mind that if I signed that 10-year deal, there was a good chance I would never, ever play beside Eric,” he said.
With respect to wanting to exploit his offensive game, something he has rarely had a chance to do in Pittsburgh, Staal said: “That was definitely part of it. With Sidney (Crosby) out most of the year, I felt really comfortable in that role and…obviously those guys (Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) are two great players. I really wanted to challenge myself to be a more offensive player.”
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.