Home > Uncategorized > Justin Schultz: From top NHL prospect to top free agent?

Justin Schultz: From top NHL prospect to top free agent?

Photo courtesy UWBadgers.com
Justin Schultz, seen here unleashing a slapshot during NCAA action for the University of Wisconsin Badgers this season, is generating a lot of hype for his on-ice talents and off-ice contract situation.

Justin Schultz has a big decision to make – to sign or not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks? And if not, then where to sign after July 1st, when he’ll suddenly become one of the NHL’s most coveted free agents despite not even debuting yet.
The West Kelowna product and former Westside Warriors defenceman, who turns 22 on July 6, just finished his third NCAA season with the University of Wisconsin Badgers and now is expected to turn pro in the fall rather than return for his senior year. By all accounts, Schultz has outgrown the collegiate game, with some scouting reports suggesting he could step into the NHL as an immediate impact player – a puck-moving, power-play quarterback capable of challenging for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. That is, however, dependent on Schultz signing with the right team, of which he’ll have 30 to choose from should he not ink a deal with Anaheim between now and July 1.
Media speculation is rampant that Schultz will hold out for his pick of the litter and spurn the Ducks, who selected him in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2008 NHL draft. A loophole in the current collective bargaining agreement allows for that option, though most prospects come to terms on entry-level contracts with the teams that drafted them.
Blake Wheeler is among the exceptions, notoriously signing with Boston rather than Phoenix, which essentially wasted its fifth overall pick in 2004 on the former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher.
Anaheim still has a few months to negotiate with Schultz in hopes of avoiding a similar fate, though reports suggest if Schultz was interested in playing for the Ducks, he’d already be in their lineup.
Apparently Anaheim’s preference was to sign him as soon as Wisconsin’s season ended on March 11, with a playoff loss to the Denver Pioneers. Other NCAA prospects, such as forwards Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues) and Reilly Smith (Dallas Stars), did exactly that this spring, but with the NHL season ending on Saturday and Schultz still on the sidelines, the rumour mill has him leaning toward free agency.
That might be in Schultz’s best interests, financially and from a hockey standpoint. Not that he couldn’t fit well in Anaheim, alongside blossoming blue-line talents Cam Fowler and Luca Sbisa, two former first-rounders, but there may be better opportunities with other teams. The Edmonton Oilers, for example, would love to add an NHL-ready defence prospect to their youth movement led by forwards Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. At the other end of the spectrum, even the Vancouver Canucks would likely extend an offer to bring Schultz home to B.C., with a chance to play for a perennial contender.
For his part, Schultz has kept quiet about his future and intentions.
“In my heart I know I can play up there (in the NHL),” Schultz told htrnews.com, a Wisconsin-based news service, last Wednesday. “We just feel that it’s best just to focus on my school (work) and get this year done with.
“We feel it’s best to finish out the school year and then look at my options and then see what’s best for me.”
One thing is for certain: there will be no shortage of teams lining up for Schultz’s services should he be available on July 1.
On a recent TSN broadcast discussing this off-season’s most sought after free agents, hockey insider Bob McKenzie threw Schultz’s name into the mix, with the likes of New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter.
That’s heady company, no doubt.
So what has teams clamouring over Schultz?
Well, he’s only the NCAA’s leading scorer among defencemen for a second straight season, finishing 20th overall in 2011-12 with 16 goals and 44 points in 37 games. Seven of those goals were on the power play. In 2010-11, Schultz led Wisconsin in scoring with 18 goals and 47 points in 41 games, including nine power-play markers, to finish tied for 17th overall with the aforementioned Jaden Schwartz, formerly of Colorado College, who captained Canada at this year’s world juniors and recently scored in his NHL debut.
That season, as a sophomore, Schultz outscored two Wisconsin teammates that are now also enjoying stellar NHL rookie seasons in defenceman Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs) and forward Craig Smith (Nashville Predators). In fact, Schultz’s emergence made Gardiner expendable, resulting in a trade from Anaheim to Toronto last summer.
Now, if there’s smoke where there’s fire, the Ducks could wind up burned by that gamble. Or, this could be much ado about nothing, and Schultz will end the delay by signing with Anaheim ahead of the July 1 deadline. However it plays out, Schultz will enter next season with lofty expectations thanks to this exposure and a dominant NCAA career that twice had him in the running for the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college player of the year.
ICE CHIPS: Schultz was a potential Hobey Baker finalist again this season, but was eliminated last Thursday with the announcement of the top three candidates: Spencer Abbott, a senior forward from the University of Maine who promptly signed with Toronto on Friday; Jack Connolly, a senior free-agent forward from the University of Minnesota-Duluth; and Austin Smith, another senior forward from Colgate University who was drafted and signed by the Dallas Stars. . . . Smith, a Dallas native and no relation to Reilly Smith of Mimico, Ont., also has an Okanagan connection. Austin Smith played one season with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees, scoring 32 goals and 67 points in 60 regular-season games, then adding 11 goals and 22 points in 15 playoff games en route to winning the 2008 league championship.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter @LarryFisher_KDC. He can also be contacted via email at larry.fisher@ok.bc.ca

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