Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Future of Justin Schultz

Image Courtesy of: Zhao Lim
NHL free agency is not until July first, and there are only a few prominent names that may be available for the highest bidder. Zach Parise, Alex Semin, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Teemu Selanne are at the top of the list. Lidstrom and Selanne will remain where they are or retire, Semin may end up in Russia. That leaves Parise as the only big prize that a GM could acquire to help build a franchise around. That is unless Justin Schultz becomes available as a UFA.

Who is Justin Schultz you may ask?

Schultz is a 6’2” 185Lbs defenseman from Kelowna, B.C. He was drafted in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round with the 43rd overall pick. For the last two seasons Schultz has been playing college hockey with the Wisconsin Badgers. The 2011-2012 season just ended and he lead the league in defense scoring for the second straight season with 18 goals (nine on the power play), 29 assists for 47 points in 41 games with a plus-minus of plus-16.  He has been awarded the defensive player of the year two years in a row, been named a first team All-Star, and is a strong candidate for the Hobey Baker award for outstanding College player. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker in his sophomore season, and is a favorite to win this year. Previous winners of the award include Paul Kariya in ’93, Ryan Miller in ’01, and former teammate Blake Geoffrion in ’10.  Schultz is the Ducks top prospect and ranked 21 overall by The Hockey News Future Watch.

So how can he become a free agent?

Schultz is now 21 years old and will become 22 on July 6th. He has yet to sign an entry level contract. Under the current CBA rules in the NHL if a player does not sign a contract by 22 years old he becomes eligible or unrestricted free agency.  But it is more complicated than that!

The main factor for Schultz to consider is how soon he can sign his second contract and potentially begin to earn some serious salary. Players who sign entry level contract while under the age of 22 are required to sign for three years. If they are 22-23 they are required to sign for two years. If Schultz signs now with Anaheim he will insist on playing this season to burn off a year of his contract and qualify for RFA in 2014. If he holds out and signs after July 6th he will still become a RFA in 2014, but can sign with any team he chooses.

Where may he go?

My best guess is he stays in Anaheim, the team that drafted him and has shown patience while he develops in Wisconsin.  However, if he has decided to play elsewhere my top five guesses are Vancouver, New York Rangers, Toronto, Detroit, and Montreal. As a B.C. native he may simply wish to remain close to home and have dreams of playing for his home town team. There are several Wisconsin alumni currently playing in the NHL who could lobby him to join their club. The Rangers have two in Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan. His good friend Jake Gardiner is playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brendan Smith is in Detroit and Blake Geoffrion now plays with the Habs.

At first thought it would seem highly unlikely that such a coveted prospect could possibly be allowed to become a free agent. Blake Wheeler was a similar situation after he was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005 in the first round with the fifth overall pick. After refusing to sign in Phoenix, he signed as a free agent with the Boston Bruins in 2008. If Schultz were planning to remain property of Anaheim, would he not sign now and begin playing this season in order to burn off that first year of his contract? Assuming he lives up to his massive potential his next contract could be a significant one. Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty are two players who went from entry level deals to earning over $7 million a season. That is pretty big motivation and incentive to get through the $875,000 a year entry level deal as soon as possible. With only 10 games remaining in this season, time is running out for Schultz to play off his first year. Of course he may simply sign a two year deal after his birthday with Anaheim, but then any other team can also make him an offer.

If he is unsigned by the end of the season, it becomes reasonable to assume he intends to play elsewhere in the NHL and it would behoove Ducks GM Bob Murray to trade Schultz rather than lose the asset for nothing.

With time seemingly running out, the speculation is beginning to heat up. The 2012 free agent market may be more interesting than originally forecast, and offer a major building block in Justin Schultz.

Follow me on Twitter: @pharling

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