If you have somehow managed to avoid hearing Justin Schultz’s name in recent days, don’t expect it to continue. The top defenseman in the entire NCAA (and currently property of the Anaheim Ducks) is weighing his options for next season. Why is this news to Canucks fans? Well, Schultz played a year of junior hockey (in the BCHL) after being drafted, and there is a loophole in the current NHL CBA that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent this summer (with a limit on how much he could earn on his first professional contract).
Read past the jump for more!
“The NHL CBA has a loophole that says if you officially withdraw from school (simply has to tell [Wisconsin] he’s leaving) and it’s the fourth summer after you’ve been drafted, you can choose to become a free agent.”
Why should this news have Canucks fans excited? For one, Schultz is a dynamic defenseman who has the potential to be a game-changing force in the NHL. He’s one of the best prospects in hockey. Two, he is from Kelowna and has BCHL roots – so he’s a "local kid". And finally, the Canucks pulled a similar move two summers ago, signing college free agent Bill Sweatt to an entry-level deal, after he spurned both Chicago and Toronto. It is obviously not a route they’re shy about pursuing.
And they really should pursue Schultz if he becomes available. The Canucks aren’t necessarily "in need" of more puck-moving defenseman, but Schultz is clearly a few levels above promising youngster Kevin Connauton in terms of current ability and all-around upside. Schultz also possesses more two-way upside than Gragnani, and more offensive upside than Chris Tanev. While Alex Edler has a dangerous, hard shot from the point and is a phenomenal passer, he probably isn’t a "true power play quarterback" (although he’s on pace for more than 50 points – I may be getting a tad picky with my definition). Justin Schultz, however, is.
Schultz may want to sign somewhere with the potential to play right away, and that could happen in Vancouver, despite the team’s blueline depth. For one thing, Head Coach Alain Vigneault has stuck to his word of playing the players who earn their ice time, though I know a few reading this may disagree with that statement. For another, Justin Schultz seems like a player who is ready to handle a top-four role in the NHL next season. 
For one thing, he’s played the last three seasons for Mike Eaves and the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers have had their fair share of young defensemen successfully make the leap to pro hockey in recent years, in fact, they’ve become something of an assembly line. So I asked Chuck Schwartz, how Schultz compares with his former teammates (and current NHLers) Jake Gardiner, Ryan McDonagh, and Brendan Smith?
"While Gardiner, McDonagh, Smith, and Schultz are all excellent defensemen, they all have different traits. Schultz is most like Gardiner, in that they are excellent puck movers with elite skating ability. Both Gardiner and Schultz can jump up in the play, and are both outstanding with the puck on their sticks. 
Smith and Schultz both posses outstanding skills with the puck, but Smith has a harder shot from the point, where as Schultz has more of a quick, accurate shot. Smith is more likely to shoot off the pass, where as Schultz is likely to quarterback a power play, and set things up.
McDonagh is the least like Schultz in terms of playing style. McDonagh is a physical rock of a defenseman that is turning onto one of the NHL’s more effective stay at home blue-liners. Schultz is still growing defensively, but his offensive upside is considerably higher than McDonagh’s."
Let’s check out some numbers. In the table below are Justin Schultz’s NHL Equivalency numbers (NHLE), or league translation numbers. Here’s the method for translating production between hockey leagues, but it’s based on math done originally by Gabriel Desjardins of Behind the Net. Basically every NCAA point is worth .41 points in the NHL and the numbers in the table below are prorated over an 82 game pace:
Justin Schultz NHLEGoalsAssistsPoints
That certainly looks like the production of an "NHL ready" prospect to me. To get a better picture of Schultz’s overall game I once again consulted Chuck Schwartz and asked him about Schultz’s NHL readiness. The review he gave was glowing:
"No question that Schultz is NHL ready right now. In my opinion he’s unquestionably the top blue-liner playing college hockey right now. 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."
For a second opinion, we got at Corey Pronman, an NHL Draft and Hockey Prospects writer for ESPN and Hockey Prospectus. In the past, Pronman has described Schultz as a "filthy good" defenseman who "doesn’t belong in College" and has a "high-end" ability to "make plays at both ends and control the game." In particular we asked Pronman if Schultz was ready, not just to play in the NHL, but to play top-4 minutes on a team that values puck-possession like the Canucks do. Here’s what he told us:
"It is always hard to tell because it’s such a huge jump from the NCAA to the NHL. I lean towards saying yes, but with a decent amount of uncertainty. He’s a possession defender though without a doubt between his tremendous hockey sense and skill level so Vancouver would love him."
Schultz isn’t another Matt Gilroy or Tyler Bozak – both quality hockey players who were somewhat overhyped as undrafted free-agents out of college. Schultz was an NHL draft pick and he has been widely regarded as an elite prospect for the past few years. In Vancouver, we are really only hearing about him now largely because he plays at Wisconsin, and the Ducks prospect group doesn’t receive a whole lot of league wide coverage.
Obviously all of this speculation and excitement will be a let down if Schultz decides to sign an entry-level contract with Anaheim before the end of the season. But is that likely to happen, or will Schultz choose to become an unrestricted free-agent? Turning once again to Chuck Schwartz, who covers the team as closely as anybody, it looks as if all signs are pointing to Schultz hitting the open market:
Well, from what I’ve been told it’s not a question of ‘if’ he’s going to choose the UFA route, but simply a matter of what team he’ll sign with. I was not told what teams would be considered, but you have to think that Vancouver would have to be a favorite given their proximity to his home town of Kelowna.
Many people are speculating about Toronto given his connections to Brian Burke and Gardiner. It wouldn’t totally surprise me, but Toronto is fairly deep on the blue-line, and I’m assuming wherever he lands, it will be a spot where he has a guaranteed spot on the NHL roster.
If Schultz becomes an unrestricted free-agent on July 1st, expect Gillis and the Canucks (and 29 other GMs) to pursue Schultz aggressively. After all, it’s not every day that one finds a twenty-two year old, NHL ready defenseman, with 1A upside on the open market.