CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, PA – When Justin Schultz came to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2016 trade deadline, he was almost a completely beaten man. Almost.
“A beaten man gives up,” said Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar, who has worked closely with Schultz. “Justin never gave up.”
And that persistence, combined with being placed in an almost perfect situation, has brought out the best in Schultz and provided both him and the Penguins with something of a vexing contract situation this summer. After scoring 51 points in the regular season and 11 more so far in the playoffs, Schultz has established himself as the reliable offensive producer everyone thought he would be when he broke into the league. The route here has been a circuitous one, but the important thing is he’s arrived at his destination. The question is, how much longer will he be there?
When Schultz arrived in Pittsburgh, he was being significantly overpaid on a one-year deal at $3.9 million that he had signed with the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to this season, he signed a one-year deal worth just $1.4 million that made him one of the biggest bargains in the league. And instead of taking a longer-term deal, Schultz essentially bet on himself that he would bounce back with a monster year, which he has done.
It should surprise no one that Schultz is currently living in the moment, so his contract situation is not uppermost in his mind. But the time will come when it has to be addressed by both him and the Penguins and that will be an interesting process to be sure.
“You think about it, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Schultz said. “It’s obviously going to help a lot if we can win.”
Schultz is a restricted free agent after this season. At 26, he has arbitration rights, so at the very least a one-year deal is pretty much guaranteed. But as far as comparables are concerned, it’s almost impossible to find one for Schultz, who came into the NHL after scoring 48 points in just 34 games in the AHL and winning rookie-of-the-year honors despite playing less than half a season. What followed was almost four years of misery on a terrible team in Edmonton, then the trade to Pittsburgh, where he won a Stanley Cup and blossomed. As far as comparables, perhaps Tyson Barrie of the Colorado Avalanche, who has a cap hit of $5.5 million on a four-year deal, would provide a measure.
That would be a rich deal for the Penguins, who are at about $60.1 million next season – a figure that drops to $54.3 million if you subtract Marc-Andre Fleury’s $5.75 million cap hit – but have only 10 forwards and three defensemen under contract. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly expects the salary cap to stay about the same, which would put it at $73 million, unless the NHL Players’ Association triggers its five percent inflator, which would put it up to about $77 million.
There are a lot of moving parts here. Do the Penguins take their chances in arbitration? Do they sign Schultz to a long-term deal to avoid the prospect of losing him for nothing a year from now as a UFA? What kind of premium are they willing to pay to do that? For Schultz, does he chase the dollars somewhere else knowing he might never be in as good a situation as he is in Pittsburgh?
“He’s the top priority when the season ends,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “It’s not whether I can make it work, it’s more whether we can make it work. Him and us. Does he get a big raise? Of course he gets a big raise, which he well deserves, but we’re probably not going to be able to give him what he thinks he should get. We still control him for one year with arbitration, but then the arbitration number could come higher than what we can fit in the cap.”
Much of this comes down to whether or not Schultz will sign long-term with the Penguins, probably for less money than he’d receive in the open market. But money isn’t everything and there’s a lot to be said for playing on a team that suits his style to a ‘T’ and one where he plays minutes and situations where he’s protected. Gonchar said the first thing he had to do with Schultz was rebuild his confidence, something that has been done.
“I remember playing without it,” Schultz said of the elusive confidence. “You’re gripping your stick tight and you’re passing the puck early instead of holding onto it and making a play. Confidence is such a big thing in hockey.”
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