The Justin Schultz Sweepstakes: The Favourites

Justin Schultz

Where does Justin Schultz end up signing? I take a look at some of the favourites, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and New York.

Justin Schultz is quickly becoming a household name across the NHL, even though he has yet to play a single game as a pro. What’s the big deal with him? Why are so many teams clamoring for the opportunity to sign him this summer? Those questions – and a few others – were answered here. The question of Schultz’s NHL readiness was posed to Chuck Schwartz, a Wisconsin sports blogger at Bucky’s 5th Quarter:

“No question that Schultz is NHL ready right now. In my opinion he’s unquestionably the top blue-liner playing college hockey. Remember that Schultz was a first -team All-American last season, and was widely considered to have a better season than Gardiner, who has had a pretty nice rookie season in Toronto. He’s ready to make the move.”

As Nic Cage would say on Saturday Night Live:

Nic Cage

Schultz would quite quickly improve 30 NHL power plays (well 29, technically, but the top-ranked Predators power play would definitely welcome the 21-year-old puck mover).

The likelihood of Schultz signing with the Ducks, the team that drafted him in the 2nd round back in 2008, gets smaller with each passing day. Schultz recently wrapped up his final exams, and will soon notify the Ducks management of his intentions.

Why doesn’t Schultz want to sign with the Ducks? Does he want to play closer to his Kelowna, BC hometown? Maybe. Does he want to play for a contending team? Maybe. The Ducks aren’t opposed to giving young defensemen copious amounts of ice time, as Cam Fowler can attest to. Perhaps Schultz felt slighted that the team moved his old college defensive partner Jake Gardiner to Toronto? Doubtful, but it could factor in to his decision.

Imagine you are an NHL general manager, and July 1st is approaching. You aren’t going to be able to make Ryan Suter (and his grandchildren) obscenely rich, and you are hesitant to overpay for a second tier offensive defenseman. You have as good a shot as anybody at acquiring Schultz for no assets and a maximum contract of two years at $925,000 per season. Time to put together a damn good sales pitch.

If you needed any more proof of Schultz’s hockey-playing abilities:

All 30 teams will have at least some level of interest. Assuming he does choose the free agency route, Schultz will have his pick of where he wants to go. What will be the deciding factor? Will it be the hometown connection? What about promises of ice time and power play responsibilities? How about playing with his buddy Gardiner in Toronto, or former teammates Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh in New York? How about another former teammate Brendan Smith in Detroit? Wisconsin has produced several s impressive young players in recent years, and Schultz will very likely become the best.

Does he look to find a team with immediate some holes on the back end? Ice time may be his best bargaining chip, as money won’t even factor in to the negotiations.

Assuming Schultz wants to play for a team with at least one of the above-mentioned attributes (location, likelihood of earning a roster spot for 2012-13, and/or a chance to win), let’s take a look at some of the contenders to acquire one of the best defenseman not in the NHL:

Vancouver

The draws: close to home, a potential roster spot (Vancouver is thin on the right side), and a chance to win.

The drawbacks: Alain Vigneault the rookie killer (according to fans and some in the media, at least), the rain.

Schultz’s coach at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves, had the following to say about his power play quarterback:

“It’s his vision. It’s his composure with the puck. It’s his puck skills. And the one thing that’s just a gift is his shot. He has the innate ability to get that puck to the net to allow for rebounds, tip-ins and goals. He’s got what we call a ‘smart shot.’”

Music to the ears of Canucks fans. The Canucks lack a defenseman who consistently gets pucks on the net. Sami Salo can hammer the puck, but he is as likely to tear a muscle as he is to hit the net with a point shot. Alex Edler doesn’t even know which net he is shooting at sometimes, and Kevin Bieksa’s nickname (Juice) could just as easily be “low and wide.”

I asked Sean Zandberg, a blogger at Nucks Misconduct, for his take on Schultz as a Canuck.

Why would he be a good fit in Vancouver?

The Canucks missed Christian Ehrhoff’s offensive presence this past season. With Sami Salo [potentially] retiring, and Aaron Rome an unrestricted free agent, they still have to sign RFA Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is the most offensive defenceman on the team. But Gragnani needs to work on his complete game. He gets caught up ice too often, as advertised. That leaves the Canucks with Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler (who I think needs to put up more points), Ballard, Alberts, and Tanev (who looks ready to stick with the team).

Why would he want to come to Vancouver?

 He would want to come to Vancouver because of the atmosphere /environment around the team that Mike Gillis has created. The Canucks are contenders every year. Schultz is also born in BC.

Would he have a roster spot available to earn?

I don’t think that there is a spot on the squad for him. I don’t know how he’d play at the NHL level. He would have to really impress at training camp, and even then, the Canucks don’t race younger players into the lineup. They give them plenty of time to develop in Chicago and we saw with Chris Tanev.

Provided he is NHL ready, what role could he play in 2012-13?

 Provided he is ready, he would probably play in the 5/6 defensive depth position because like I said, the Canucks don’t rush players in unless Schultz blows their minds at camp.

Likelihood of Schultz to Vancouver: Five Ryan Kesler dives out of 10.

The only roadblock with the Canucks signing Schultz is their hesitation to give rookies big minutes right away. Schultz, however, is far and away better than any prospect the Canucks have had in a long time. You could make the argument that he would be their most skilled non-twin prospect since Matthias Ohlund (pre-eye injury). If he wants to play for a winner close to home, the Canucks make a lot of sense.

Edmonton

The draws: close to home, a wide open roster, and the potential of being the Paul Coffey to this generation of talented Oilers forwards.

The drawbacks: An organization that seems morally opposed to winning, potentially having to play on a regular defensive pairing with Theo Peckham or Andy Sutton.

Bob McKenzie picked Edmonton has the most likely spot for Schultz to end up, and I agree. Bob on Schultz:

“I’ll say the Edmonton Oilers.  I think this Kelowna kid would be happy to play in Canada. I also think it would be great for him to grow old with guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall.  He’s the missing piece of the puzzle in Edmonton, a power play quarterback.”

Edmonton, like Vancouver, is close to Kelowna (that is the first and last time I will compare Edmonton and Vancouver). The Oilers have a roster spot open for him – this is the same team that gave Cam Barker a contract to play defense. If Cam Barker can get another NHL deal, his agent deserves a Hart Trophy nomination. Edmonton is doubly attractive because of their collection of elite young talent, as McKenzie alluded to. Edmonton has some talented young defensemen in their system, but none that project as elite power play quarterbacks. Jeff Petry has developed into a decent offensive option, but he projects as more of a two-way defenseman. Ryan Whitney is fine as long as he doesn’t have to skate or change directions, both of which are unfortunately important requirements of playing defense.

Likelihood of Schultz to Edmonton: Eight Taylor Hall injuries out of 10.

If Schultz wants to win a cup within the next two or three years, Edmonton doesn’t make much sense. However, if he wants lots of ice time, a chance to put up some numbers, and a collection of players around his age who he can develop some chemistry with, the Oilers should be considered the frontrunner.

Calgary

The draws: country music (oh, this is for Schultz and not me), a wide open roster, zero competition among prospects, close to Kelowna, not Edmonton.

The drawbacks: a team that is starting their rebuild about two years late, and a roster with Roman Cervenka as the current top line center.

Schultz could step in right away and be Calgary’s best offensive defenseman. No slight to Mark Giordano, who has developed into a very good top pairing defenseman. Jay Bouwmeester, durable and fluid on his skates, seems content with earning a lot of money and logging a ton of minutes for bad hockey clubs. TJ Brodie, like Petry, is a decent young defenseman, but his upside is limited. Schultz could change Calgary’s power play for the better all by himself.

Flames Nation blogger Kent Wilson took the time to give his thoughts on Schultz to Calgary.

Why would he be a good fit in Calgary?

I think when you can land a player of Schultz’s potential for nothing, it is worth investigating regardless how well a fit he seems at the time.

The Flames have a number of potential defenders at the bottom-end of the rotation, including Clay Wilson, Derek Smith, TJ Brodie and Anton Babchuk. Of the four, only Brodie is a lock to be a long-term asset for the Flames, so Schultz would fit as long as he could beat the other guys out for a roster spot.

Why would he want to come to Calgary?

That’s a good question – the Flames are a hard sell right now given the slope of the team’s fortunes. That said, as mentioned the club doesn’t have a lot of truly NHL ready kids which represents a solid opportunity for someone like Schultz to come in and establish himself as part of Calgary’s future.

Would he have a roster spot available to earn?

Derek Smith and Clay Wilson are older fringe NHLers and only signed for one more season, while Anton Babchuk is an error the club would like to divest themselves of. In addition, both Scott Hannan and Cory Sarich are unlikely to be retained by the Flames, meaning there should be a few gaps on the Flames blueline this summer.

As a result, there will be more than a few openings for guys on the back-end.

Provided he is NHL ready, what role could he play in 2012-13?

It really depends on how ready he is – either he could get his feet wet on the Flames bottom pairing, or if he jumps into the league fully formed, he could join Mark Giordano or Chris Butler on the Flames second pairing.

I can just see Calgary’s sales pitch now. “Hey Justin, come join and the Flames and we can guarantee you ice time alongside Chris Butler. Oh, and please don’t watch the tape of our game against Boston last January….”

8 ball, corner pocket!

Likelihood of Schultz to Calgary: Three Iginla forehead creases out of 10. The Flames don’t have anything to outshine the Oilers or Canucks. They better hope Justin has a masochist streak and wants to spend the next few seasons toiling at the bottom of the Western Conference.

Detroit

The draws: a class organization from top to bottom, a new arena deal on the horizon, the chance to play with his buddy Brendan Smith.

The drawbacks: Likely no roster spot available, even if Nick Lidstrom retires and Brad Stuart returns to play in California. The Wings are patient with their young defensemen – just look at Smith and Jakub Kindl.

Schultz to Detroit? As Gob Bluth would say,” Come on!” Will the rich get richer? The same set of questions was posed to J.J. from Winging It In Motown.

Why would he be a good fit in Detroit?

Schultz’s game matches Detroit’s system extremely well. No team in the league relies more on creating offense and transition from their blue line. To have another smart shot, especially one that shoots right would be welcome just about anywhere. While it may not play much of a difference, the Red Wings having Patrick Eaves, the son of Schultz’s coach Mike at Wisconsin, defenseman Brendan Smith, and what many would consider a front-runner status on former Badger Ryan Suter, it could make a difference.

Why would he want to come to Detroit?

The Red Wings are well-known for being a player-friendly organization where there’s an expectation to win, but enough veteran leaders in the locker room to alleviate some of the pressure on a kid. He would be able to grow himself into the spotlight in Detroit rather than having it bearing down on him from the start.

Would he have a roster spot available to earn?

I don’t believe Schultz would be able to walk into a roster spot if he signs his first NHL contract with the Red Wings. Aside from being famous for taking care of their players, they’re also a bit notorious for over ripening their prospects. Brendan Smith is looking forward to his first full NHL season with the big club after a year many thought he should have already been with them. While Schultz would be given a chance to jump over a guy like Jakub Kindl, it’s not likely he’ll find himself anywhere but Grand Rapids for the first year.

Provided he is NHL ready, what role could he play in 2012-13?

With so much in the air as far as the status of Detroit’s defensive corps next season, it’s hard to tell where he would end up if the club made room for him, but I think he’d slot onto the third pairing to get 10-12 minutes per night. Depending on other acquisitions, he would probably be either first or second in line to take over a point on the 2nd power play unit in the event of injury.

Schultz to Detroit makes a lot of sense if immediate ice time at the NHL isn’t his primary goal. The Wings are set to reap the rewards of their patience with Smith and Kindl, and it is likely that Schultz would take the same route as those two (at least two years in Grand Rapids).

Likelihood of Schultz to Detroit: Two Holmstrom goaltender interference penalties out of 10.

Philadelphia

The draws: A winning organization, a group of elite young forwards, a team looking for a power play quarterback

The drawbacks: A lot of Kovalchuk, Crosby, Malkin, and Tavares for the foreseeable future (provided realignment doesn’t happen).

The Flyers are an organization that gets what it wants (Dan Hamhuis notwithstanding). Their 2011-12 offseason could be a case study in organizational change, both for the good (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter trades) and the bad (completely misreading the market and excessively overpaying for Ilya Bryzgalov).

Like Detroit, the once-deep Flyers backend has a lot of question marks. Chris Pronger may never return to play  competitive hockey. Matt Carle is likely headed for greener pastures as a free agent. Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn are both two-way defensemen, and Nik Grossman barely adventures past center ice. Andrej Meszaros has been a productive defenseman in the past, but he is more of a two-way player as well. There are some intriguing young pieces (Marc-Andre Bourdon, Erik Gustafsson), but neither are at or even close to Schultz in terms of skill level or upside.

Philadelphia is a team with its sights set on winning in both the short and long term. They have a need for a power play quarterback, and aren’t afraid of giving ice time and responsibility to young players (provided they earn it).

Likelihood of Schultz to Philadelphia: Three mercurial Russian goalies out of 10.

Toronto

The draws: A passionate fan base, the chance to play with Gardiner, playing in the Center of the Hockey Universe.

The drawbacks: A team without a legitimate goaltender (at the moment), a team in between rebuilding and contending, playing in the Center of the Hockey Universe.

The Leafs were in playoff contention for the first few months of the season, scoring lots and playing exciting hockey. James Reimer got injured physically by Brian Gionta and mentally by Ron Wilson, and the team wasn’t the same in his absence, nor upon his return. Gardiner and Schultz played together at Wisconsin and Schultz definitely took note of the success Gardiner had last season with the Leafs. Gardiner stepped in and was Toronto’s best defenseman on many nights (both a testament to his ability and to the struggles of his teammates).

Up front, the Leafs are better off than most would think. Mikhail Grabovski is a very good hockey player, probably the best forward on the team. Phil Kessel can score goals. Matt Frattin is having a phenomenal AHL postseason, and prospect Joe Colborne isn’t too far away.

The back end has a lot of money invested in it, and to date the return has been disappointing. Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarson, and Gardiner are all signed through 2012-13. Cody Franson is a restricted free agent. One would think the Leafs will find a way to get rid of Komisarek if they needed to open a roster spot up. This is the same club that is paying Darcy Tucker $1 million for each of the next two seasons not to play for them.

Contrary to the thoughts of most, I like where this group is headed (assuming they get a goaltender).

Likelihood of Schultz to Toronto: Seven untied Brian Burke ties out of 10.

New York

The draws: A great team on the ice, the change to play in arguably the most exciting city on the planet, a great young core of defensemen.

The drawbacks: May be some competition for ice time with similar young players, the expectation of blocking every shot imaginable.

The Rangers have two of Schultz’s former teammates in Stepan and McDonagh. They have a young defensive group (to say the least). Michael Del Zotto could be the power play quarterback of the future (and Brad Richards knows a thing or two about running a power play), but you can never have too many good young offensive defensemen.

Playing in the Big Apple is a huge draw for most players, and the success the Rangers are having this year is likely to be another for Schultz. This is a team with its best days ahead of it, too.

Likelihood of Schultz to New York: Six blocked shots out of 10.

There will be a number of other teams after Schultz. A case could be made for all 30 NHL clubs. Chicago is an attractive destination and their back end is thin. Dallas is a team on the rise, and the Predators may be looking for a Suter replacement (and Schultz has another former teammate there in Craig Smith).

Where he ends up is anybody’s guess. Edmonton makes the most sense if he wants the path of least resistance to the NHL. Vancouver, New York, and Philadelphia make sense if he wants a crack at a roster spot while playing for a contending team. Playing close to home, playing with former teammates, playing for a winner, and playing in the NHL immediately are all going to factor in to his decision. And money won’t, making this a uniquely interesting situation.

Schultz isn’t another Fabian Brunnstrom, Tyler Bozak, or Matt Gilroy. He isn’t getting undeserved hype because of his potential free agency status. He is one of the best prospects in the game, and would undoubtedly go in the top 10 in this summer’s draft if he were eligible.

The Favourites:

  1. Edmonton
  2. Toronto
  3. New York
  4. Vancouver
  5. Philadelphia

Start your selling engines, NHL general managers.