On the Sweepstakes, Justin Schultz’s Bust Potential, and Earning Ice Time

There are conflicting reports, but it appears as if Justin Schultz, with his representatives from Newport Sports in tow, will begins to hear pitches from individual teams hoping desperately to land the highly touted 21 year old defenseman on Thursday. That’s per Bob Mckenzie:

The Canucks, who continue to be seen as "front-runners" in the Schultz-derby, will likely be among the first to get a meeting with the West Kelowna product. McKenzie reports that the entire Canucks brain trust, including: General Manager Mike Gillis, Assistant General Manager and master negotiator Laurence Gilman, and head-coach Alain Vigneault are in Toronto at the moment, basically waiting around for their opportunity. I guess the team is interested.

Read past the jump for more.

Schultz Derby Status Update

Apparently at the start of this process, Justin Schultz was being courted by 26 NHL teams. Assuming the Anaheim Ducks, who he spurned on his way to the open market, aren’t one of those 26 clubs – that means three teams are lying.

Justin Schultz’s earnings would be capped, he can sign a maximum entry level contract for $925,000. While that deal can be bonus laden (and may carry a cap-hit approaching four million), defenseman rarely ever hit those bonuses. Considering that Calgary just spent 26 million, and committed five years of term to Dennis Wideman, the chance to sign a player like Schultz; who may be ready for top-4 duty in the NHL, and can at least punch up a power-play, is irresistible. 

Schultz has reportedly spent the past two days in Toronto with his agents, systematically whittling down the list of suitors to a "short-list" of teams who he’ll meet with. Already, two clubs are reportedly out of the running: Detroit as reported by Ted Kulfan and Columbus, as reported by Aaron Portzline. Most folks assume that the short-list of teams will ultimately include Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, New York (Rangers) and Philadelphia. 

The Leafs, who were thought to be serious frontrunners, traded for the right to negotiate with Schultz prior to Monday (when Anaheim’s exclusive negotiating window expired) but were rebuffed. That doesn’t mean they’re out of the running, in fact, the Maple Leafs are still thought to have a strong chance based on Schultz’s relationship with Jake Gardiner and Brian Burke (who originally drafted him), it just means that Schultz at least wanted to explore his options.

The next two days should be interesting, and I’ll be curious to see how much information about each session leaks out to the press. So far the process has been secretive, and while that may continue, we’ll learn more as teams hear that they’ve been officially rejected.

Schultz’s Bust Potential

I haven’t seen Justin Schultz play very much at all. I caught a game of his broadcast on the Score this past winter, but I mostly paid attention to Joseph Labate. Looking over the data, however, I’m convinced that any comparisons between him, and over-hyped guys like Fabian Brunnstrom, or Matt Gilroy are superficial and borderline silly.

First of all, Schultz has serious pedigree. Gilroy and Brunnstrom were undrafted late-bloomers, whereas Justin Schultz was part of the ridiculously loaded 2008 defenseman draft class (along with Doughty, Pietrangello, Bogosian, Karlsson, Carlsson and Myers). The Wisconsin Badger was selected in the second round of that draft – two slots behind Canucks prospect Yann Sauve – and he’s been highly touted ever since.

Secondly, when you look at the numbers, it’s pretty clear that Justin Schultz was the single best offensive defenseman not playing in the NHL this past season. He’s not the best blue-line prospect under the Sun (for my money, that presumptive title belongs to Bruins prospect Doug Hamilton), but at a minimum, Schultz looks like he’s ready to produce offense at the NHL level. 

I compiled a list of some of the most highly-touted offensive defenseman who’ve been drafted in the first two rounds since 2008, but played outside of the NHL last season. I then ranked them based on the equivalent number of NHL points each produced last season in their respective leagues.

NHL equivalency numbers are based on some math done by Gabe Desjardins of Behindthenet.ca. While they’re not a perfect "predictor" of offensive success by any means, they do give us a good baseline read on how ready a player is to contribute offensively, and how much they’ll produce if they jump into a similar situation (top-pairing minutes, lots of power-play time) at the NHL level. Included in the list are two guys from the most recent NHL draft (Ryan Murray and Griffin Reinhardt), and because of the wide age range of players in the table, I’ve included each players age to contextualize the results:

Justin Schultz 21 15 25 40
Dougie Hamilton 19 8 27 35
Adam Clandenning 19 4 26 30
Ryan Murphy 19 5 22 27
Joe Morrow 19 7 18 25
Nathan Bealieu 19 4 18 22
Brian Dumoulin 20 5 16 21
Brandon Gormley 20 7 14 21
Ryan Murray 18 6 11 17
Griffin Reinhardt 18 5 10 15
Simon Despres 20 4 8 12
Calvin De Haan 21 1 9 10
Jesse Blacker 21 1 9 10
Jonas Brodin 19 0 10 10

Just look at those goal totals.

About a month ago, Schultz’s head-coach at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves, raved to Jason Botchford about Justin Schultz’s one really "unique weapon" – his shot:

"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.’

He can bring the heat, but there are times he recognizes, you have to take a little off to get it at the net. Often times, those are the shots that go in. [Schultz’s] shot is very special."

The data certainly backs up Eaves’ laudatory comments about Schultz’s cannon. While it’s a little much to just pencil Schultz in as an automatic ten goal scorer from the blue-line next season, the data indicates that there’s no one in the world who both: has a better point shot than Justin Schultz, and wasn’t playing in the National Hockey League last season… 

For the sake of further comparison, I put together another table. Basically I took the top-10 rookie defenseman in NHL scoring over the past two seasons, and broke down their final season outside of the NHL (KHL, CHL, NCAA, AHL are all represented) based on the NHLE numbers. Mostly I’m just curious as to how Schultz’s production in Wisconsin last season compares with the likes of Cam Fowler, PK Subban and Jake Gardiner in their final seasons before those guys became fixtures in "the show." The number are again very flattering to Schultz:

Justin Schultz 21 15 25 40
Jake Gardiner 20 9 25 34
John Carlsson 20 3 27 30
Justin Faulk 19 7 21 28
Kevin Shattenkirk 21 7 19 26
Travis Hamonic 19 7 19 26
Cam Fowler 18 4 21 25
PK Subban 21 9 16 25
Slava Voynov 21 7 17 24
Jamie McBain 22 4 17 21
Dmitry Orlov 19 3 15 18

There are no guarantees in life. Justin Schultz could disappoint and end up in the AHL next season, regardless of what team wins the Schultz-derby this week. But I just don’t see the bust potential. In fact, it looks to me like there’s a very good reason why he is being courted by 26 NHL teams at the moment. Schultz’s eye-popping production at Wisconsin, which, he’s sustained for two seasons now is tantalizing; and while the numbers indicate nothing about his proficiency in his own end, they do auger well for his future success at the NHL-level.

Earning Ice-Time

It’s interesting that Schultz’s camp rejected the Red Wings as a suitor so quickly, especially considering that the Red Wings were reportedly willing to guarantee Schultz a nice chunk of ice-time. From the Windsor Star (h/t David Staples):

“According to a team source, the Wings are prepared to give him more than just an opportunity to make the NHL roster. Detroit will offer Schultz a guarantee that he’ll be on their NHL roster to start the season. It’s then up to him to hang onto that spot. It’s a significant change in direction for an organization that likes to let their prospects mature in the AHL first. However, the winds of change are blowing through Joe Louis Arena with increasing speed these days as the Wings face some serious restructuring.”

As Botchford wrote on Wednesday, "If it was all about playing time, the Canucks wouldn’t even get a call back."

But ice-time, or at least a guarantee that Schultz won’t spend any time in the AHL this upcoming season, is likely to be important. For Schultz, who is sure to be paid 925k next season, a prolonged stint in the AHL could be worth well over a half million dollars. Maybe Schultz’s camp doesn’t require any iron-clad assurances that he’ll play top-4 even-strength minutes next season – but surely with that much money at stake, the young defenseman will want to be certain that wherever he goes, he’s going to spend the year in the NHL.

Botchford added, in the piece linked to above:

"There’s little doubt some general managers are willing to commit “time on ice” to Schultz before he even signs a contract… But the Canucks are positioning themselves as a team that stresses player development, and are unwilling to pledge the top-four role many believed Schultz was seeking when this process started. Generally, the Canucks like to believe they’re modeled on the idea playing time is earned, not gift wrapped.

Certainly that was the case the last time the Canucks won the bidding on a highly coveted British Columbian born defenseman.  When Vancouver pursued Dan Hamhuis in the summer of 2010, they "challenged him," according to Greg Wyshynski, "Hamhuis told the media after his signing that there were no promises made about ice time or his role based on his contract, and that the team would "play the guys that play the best.""

Really, that’s the way it should be. Last season the Canucks made roster moves based on factors like, ‘which player we can send down to Chicago, without them having to pass through waivers.’ Business considerations often seemed to trump who was playing the best hockey. It made sense – the team was trying to maximize the number of available bodies at their disposal, in preparation for a long playoff run – but philosophically it seems kind of warped, no?

In the case of Schultz, he’d be coming into a situation where he’d be behind Bieksa on the depth chart, and would likely get a chance to compete with Chris Tanev, and Sami Salo for a top-four slot. Schultz could be a game changer for the Canucks, who are thin on the right side and beyond that could really use an injection of youth and skill on their back-end, and to their prospect pool more generally. Still, the team should stick with their usual modus operandi – Schultz really shouldn’t be promised more than an honest tryout and, maybe, a guarantee that he’ll at least make NHL money and won’t be sent to the AHL in his first season.

  • Mantastic

    You forgot to include Ryan Ellis for prospect NHLE numbers. he put up monster numbers in the OHL before going into the AHL.

    and the cap hit for schultz will be 3.775m because he won’t be sent down to the minors by which ever team that signs him. ELC bonuses always count against the cap and i doubt he wouldn’t sign a contract with the maximum bonuses either.

  • @Mantastic first of all, I said his cap-hit would likely be closer to 4 million. Secondly, I was pretty clear about my methodology – I used the top-10 rookie scorers from the past 2 seasons, and looked at their final year before becoming everyday NHLers.

    As for Ellis’ final OHL season, he put up 43 NHLE points in 2010-11 with Windsor (and was 20 years old at the time). Those numbers are very comparable to Schultz who is A) physically larger, and B) played in the WCHA against a level of competition that is significantly more difficult than what Ellis faced in the OHL.

  • Mantastic

    i know that’s what you said about his cap hit. tho i would have removed the likely part out of it because his cap hit will be 3.775m without pissing off Schultz. you can pull a holmgren and send schultz down to the AHL for 1 game and lower the cap hit like he did with Schenn.

    2ndly just saying you should include Ryan Ellis if you want to include offensive d-men.

  • I was including offensive Dmen not in the NHL, and then I also included defenseman who produced big time as rookies in the NHL produced in their final year outside the league. Ellis just didn’t meet either set of criteria.

  • kind of ridiculous how teams can “promise” icetime. if you suck, that “promise” goes out the window anyway. schultz knows that as well as anybody.

    if regular NHL icetime is a priority, be it for money or desire or development purposes, the best thing a player in his position can do is to look at a roster and ask, how badly do i have to suck before i fall behind 6 other guys on the roster?

    in which case obviously the oilers top the list, then the leafs, then the canucks.

    stability of management and roster is important after you’ve sat down with so many teams. and i think the canucks do have an edge here along with “home province advantage”.