Getty ImagesHere's the vision: Justin Schultz sitting on an oversized chair with his Newport agents flanking him, like a scene from "Game of Thrones" or that terrible Pepsi commercial with Elton John from the Super Bowl. One by one, the representatives of the NHL's fiefdoms present their cases.
"We can offer you ice time!"
"We can offer you a chance to flourish in our system!"
"Hi, I'm Taylor Hall. Please be our friend …"
One by one they pitch him. He ends each plea by pulling a large lever, opening a trap door and sending them down a long chute into a pile of other suits clutching contracts, muttering "thanks, we'll be in touch ... (clap clap) next!"
This probably isn't accurate; I mean, his agent would pull the lever, right?
But it's the type of grandiose scene that symbolizes how this entire Justin Schultz Derby is playing out in the NHL ahead of free agency.
Just so we're all caught up: Schultz was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks at No. 43 overall in 2008, and they held his rights until June 24, 2012. Schultz, a soon-to-be-22-year-old standout defenseman for the University of Wisconsin, filed paperwork in May to leave school. He then became yet another high-profile NCAA prospect that used the CBA to become an unrestricted free agent.
The best he can do financially is a 2-year deal with "a $925,000 base salary, including $92,500 signing bonus, plus $2.85 million in performance bonuses for a $3.77 million cap hit," according to the Detroit News. So his decision would be based on the quality of the opportunity for him and his career, rather than dollars.
The process of elimination has turned the Schultz Derby into "America's Next Top Prospect," one Jim Gray hosting gig away from becoming an ESPN (OK, TSN) special. Each day, more teams were dropped from contention, including a real shocker on Wednesday night: The Detroit Red Wings, thought to be a front-runner.
As of Thursday, the British Columbia native allegedly had a list of five teams he was considering: The Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers. Bob McKenzie of TSN said on Edmonton's 1260 AM on Friday morning that the Tampa Bay Lightning might be in the mix, too.
Is Schultz worth all the trouble? Sure.
First, because the free-agent class for defenseman is weak and significantly older and pricier than Schultz. His coach at Wisconsin, Mike Eaves, sees him as an NHL-ready player, much in the same way his Badgers defensive partner Jake Gardiner stepped in with the Toronto Maple Leafs and had a 30-point rookie season. (Gee, wonder if that's part of their selling point?)
"I read somewhere that people are questioning his character. Well, I can say with some authority that this is a young man who says if he's going to be somewhere, he's there on time; who says if he's going to get something done for you, he does," said Eaves.
Questions about Schultz's character have been a byproduct of the process. First, because since the money is even between the teams, there need to be other guarantees to sway his opinion — like playing time. Matt Lee of Canucks Hockey Blog doesn't think there should be any assurances:
You see, while Schultz is entitled to take his time in making a decision, by no means has he earned the privilege to make demands from potential suitors. He's played a grand total of 0 games in the NHL.
If Schultz wants ice time and powerplay minutes, the Canucks should tell him it's there if he earns it. If he wants to take the steps necessary to learn under some veterans and play on a contending team, the Canucks are his choice.
The other bit about the process that's maligned him: It's one thing for Brad Richards and his agents to welcome sales pitches from NHL GMs — dude has a ring, a Conn Smythe and a track record. It's another for a college kid to do the same, which leads to accusations of "Diva Behavior" from bloggers like Bryan Reynolds of Hockey Wilderness:
You see teams clamoring to sign Blake Wheeler? Maybe Schultz is a better prospect than Wheeler. Maybe he's not. The odds say he's not, so why not hedge your bet and entertain the offers from everyone who is interested? Why burn the bridges?
Justin Schultz has gone from an elite prospect that everyone wants on their team, to an elite prospects that fans see has a prima donna. Hopefully GMs and those in power across the NHL have the capacity to look past being told that they aren't even good enough to have a conversation with.
Again, this is a byproduct of the process. The CBA has a rookie diva clause, allowing a player in Schultz's situation to preside over public courtship, and plot his own course.
It's a jarring thing for NHL fans, because we're used to career paths being mapped out for young players without their input or influence. Teams draft them, sign them to rookie deals, sign them again to contracts that take them through restricted free agency, and only then can they fly away as a UFA, three years from 30.
Schultz is a 21-year-old blue chip prospect that didn't have to Lindros his way out of Anaheim — he just followed the rules and gets a chance that, say, Zach Bogosian didn't have when the Atlanta Thrashers drafted him.
Why bother having a draft at all? Why ask NHL teams to invest millions of dollars chasing teenagers around rinks on this continent and overseas, believing their scouts can find the hid-den gems better than their rivals?
Why not simply recruit players, using a team's previous success, the chance of advancing quicker, or the promise of guaranteed ice time, as the tools for signing?
The idea of the draft is to address imbalances, allowing weaker teams to improve faster and allowing smaller-market teams equal access to top players, at least when the players are in the early years of their careers. Of course, if there's a loop-hole, some creative player (or his agent and parents) will eventually find it and take advantage. Blake Wheeler successfully pulled off the same stunt as Schultz four years ago.
Bruce Ciskie of SB Nation doesn't see this as a loophole but a system flaw:
So why should Schultz -- who has played in as many NHL games as I have -- get that right?
It's a well-intentioned rule, but it needs to be fixed. That fix is simple. Teams in Anaheim's position should be able to retain a drafted player's rights simply by making an offer commiserate with the player's position in the draft. Either that, or the team should be able to match any offer the player gets on the open market.
Allowing players with no NHL experience to become unrestricted free agents by their choice is simply not the best way to handle the entry-level system.
I'm generally a players' guy, but I'm also someone that believes that bad teams should have an opportunity to rebuild through the draft and troubled markets can retain their talent through free agency restrictions. In fact, I think both of these things are the lifeblood of parity in the NHL, more than any rules change or charity points.
So I'm not a fan of what Schultz is doing here, because the Ducks get no return on their investment.
But this is one escape route that may be difficult to close in the next CBA — consider that one team was inconvenienced, while dozens more had a chance to sign this young talent.
Maybe it takes a few NCAA free-agent busts before the GMs decide they have to save themselves from themselves, just like they will with a reduced salary cap and term limits on contracts.
Which is to say that they've apparently learned nothing from the Matt Gilroy Saga; remember when he was can't-miss?