It’s a completely absurd situation: a defenceman who has yet to play a single game in the NHL is arguably the most sought-after free agent on the market. NHL teams are sending entire management teams to woo him. He’s taking calls from Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. He’s a wall of Vitamin Water away from being the NHL equivalent of LeBron James, except without the years of being one of the best players in the league.
Justin Schultz controls his own fate, as a loophole in the CBA has allowed him the opportunity to choose the team with which he will start his career. Actually, “loophole” is the wrong word, as it’s essentially a feature of the CBA that allows players like Schultz, who played one more year of junior hockey before going to college, the same rights as any other draftee that goes to college: the right to become a free agent after four years of not being signed by the club that drafted them.
There’s a difference, of course, between having a right and taking advantage of it. By exploiting the “loophole,” Schultz has set some pretty high expectations for whichever team ends up signing him. He also completely screwed over the Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks drafted Schultz in the second round of the 2008 entry draft, 43rd overall. That turned out to be a pretty shrewd selection, as Schultz proceeded to tear up the BCHL the next season and, after a solid rookie year at the University of Wisconsin, did the same in the NCAA. Ducks fans were thrilled: Schultz was going to be a top-four defenceman, and maybe a number one, for years to come.
Schultz had apparently given every indication that he wanted to sign with the Ducks, but when the time came, he left them high and dry. The Ducks even traded away Lubomir Visnovsky, just one year removed from a 68-point season, for next to nothing, leading many Ducks fans to believe that a Schultz signing was immanent. After all, Visnovsky could have been moved as an assurance to Schultz that he would get immediate ice time in the NHL.
Instead, the Ducks are left with nothing. Because Schultz was a second round pick, they don’t even get a compensatory draft pick as the Coyotes did when Blake Wheeler pulled the same stunt.
Now, because of how this situation has played out, Schultz is going to leave a lot of teams and their fans unhappy. Essentially, he has cast himself as the villain. People around the NHL will question his character, call him a diva, and gloat over his every misfortune. But what about the team that does sign him?
The winner of the Schultz sweepstakes will get a very promising offensive defenceman, whose production in the NCAA maps out very nicely to NHL production. But potential doesn’t always pay off, and by going through the process the way he has – meeting with managerial teams in Toronto, creating lists and denying face time to certain teams – he’s potentially setting himself up for failure.
His list of teams seems to have narrowed down to several Canadian teams and the New York Rangers, which means there will be plenty of media attention on him and plenty of voices to turn against him should he fail to live up to the expectations he is creating. Whichever team signs him is going to have a $3.775 million cap hit on their hands as well. If he lives up to expectations, that will be a bargain; if not, it will be another round of ammunition for his detractors.
Until he actually signs, of course, the fans of each team in the race will fall all over themselves proclaiming how obvious it is that Schultz will sign with them. The Oilers can promise ice time, the Leafs have his former teammate Jake Gardiner, the Rangers can one-up the Leafs with two former teammates, the Senators have the system that has made Erik Karlsson a star, and the Canucks were his favourite team growing up. Everyone has a reason why he’ll sign with their favourite team; once he signs, they’ll all have a reason why they’re glad he didn’t sign with their favourite team.
Here’s a tip for Schultz, though: stay away from the Pacific Division. The Honda Center is not going to be kind to you.