Justin Schultz Is Setting Himself Up For Failure

justin schultz

Setting The Stage

On June 21, 2008 defenseman Justin Schultz was drafted in the second round (43rd overall) by the Anaheim Ducks. He spent the season immediately following his draft year playing for the Westside Warriors of the BCHL, skating to an eye-catching 50 points (15g, 35a) in 49 games. Following the 08-09 season, Schultz left for the University of Wisconsin and the NCAA. Under the watchful eye of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, Schultz steadily developed as an offensive defenseman, twice being nominated for the Hobey Baker award, racking up a career total of 113 points (40g, 73a) in 121 games, and generally becoming widely thought of as a ‘can’t miss/blue chip’ prospect.

The plan was for Schultz to, along with Cam Fowler, become the bedrock upon which Anaheim would build their defensive corps for years to come. Ducks fans fantasized about a one-two power play attack featuring Schultz and Fowler – fantasized about claiming as their own not one but two defensemen who could skate like the wind, make a great first pass, and light the lamp with regularity. Dynamic didn’t begin to describe the theoretical Schultz/Fowler combo. It should have been the beginning of something special.

Now though, due to a ridiculous loophole in the CBA, and despite spending four years patiently waiting for Schultz to develop, the Anaheim Ducks will lose Schultz to free agency without him ever having played a single game for them. The Ducks will never get to sew ‘SCHULTZ’ on to the back of an Anaheim jersey, or pencil him into a line-up card. Justin Schultz will never score a goal for the Anaheim Ducks short of pulling a Steve Smith (delicious irony if ever there was such a thing).

From the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Section C of Article 8.6:

“If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft.”

In plain English this means that because Schultz played a year of junior hockey after his draft year and before matriculating as a University student, should the Ducks be unable to sign him to an entry-level contract, he can become a free agent four years after being drafted and sign wherever he wishes. (The standard course of action for a player unable to come to terms with the team that drafted him is to re-enter the draft as a 22-year-old – a far more equitable system that simultaneously doesn’t reward players for having plans of their own.)

In even plainer English, what this means is that the plan was bunk.

The Seeds of Schultz’s Spurning Anaheim

The narrative of Justin Schultz’s suddenly high profile, glacially-paced divorce from Anaheim plays something like slow, inevitable spiral down into a hopeless situation. One needs only read the following headlines from Eric Stephens and the OC Register to get a sense for the trajectory of this story.

From January 8th, 2012:

Ducks Prospect Schultz Starring at Wisconsin

From March 12th, just as Wisconsin’s season had finished:

Could Schultz Be Joining Ducks Soon?

From March 29th, as word came down that Schultz wanted to finish the school year out:

Ducks Draftee Schultz Talks About Decision to Wait

From April 5th, as the CBA loophole was becoming more widely reported on:

Ducks Believe They Are Still in Mix For Schultz

From May 13th:

Ducks Hope To Hear Decision From Schultz

From June 1st:

Hope Fading Fast for Ducks to Land Schultz

And finally, from June 24th:

Murray: Schultz Set on Exploring Free Agency

So, now then…

What It’s About

It isn’t as though a high profile draft pick deciding to (or at least threatening to) spurn the organization that drafted him hasn’t happened before. There was, of course, the Eric Lindros-Quebec drama, and even Super Mario didn’t initially want to be a Penguin. In fact, this exact loophole in the CBA has been exploited before, in the case of Blake Wheeler and the Phoenix Coyotes. It’s difficult to excuse this kind of behavior in any circumstance, but that said, there is a distinct difference between Lindros/Lemieux and Schultz/Wheeler.

Where both Lindros and Lemieux were hailed as transcendent, once in a generation talents pegged since their mid-teens to be taken first overall in their respective draft years and therefore understandably possessed of large egos, Justin Schultz and Blake Wheeler are simply very good-to-great hockey players. They’re not not ‘once in a generation’ talents. And yet, in Schultz’s case, he’s currently holed up in a conference room at Newport Sports Management (his representation) in Toronto, ‘deigning’ to meet with the movers and shakers of a handful of NHL teams, and weighing their “please, please, please come to play for us” pitches in advance of July 1st (when Schultz can actually put pen to paper and get his NHL career in gear).

Where will Justin Schultz land after July 1st? (David Stluka/Icon SMI)

Without having played so much as a single game at any professional level. Sounds pretty egocentric.

Simply put, the 21-year-old rookie is pulling a Brad Richards (he of the Conn Smythe trophy, Stanley Cup ring, and legitimate status as one of the premier centers in the game), and it’s more than a little bit embarrassing – to Schultz, to the League, and to the game itself.

Keep in mind that money is not the issue with Schultz. Because of his age, he can only be signed to a two-year entry-level-deal worth a $925,000 base salary, including $92,500 signing bonus, plus $2.85 million in performance bonuses. No, this is simply a matter of Justin Schultz deciding take matters into Justin Schultz’s hands and dictate where Justin Schultz wants to play – and Anaheim is clearly not that place. Why? We may never know. Schultz and his camp have been completely silent as to why he doesn’t want to sign in Anaheim. But in not saying anything, Schultz has effectively let a controlled burn become a wild fire.

(For what it’s worth, according to Anaheim GM Bob Murray, Schultz had given every indication that he was excited to join the Ducks.)

Justin Schultz must have one hell of a poker face…

Perhaps all of this ‘holding court’ and the resultant media circus is exactly what Schultz’s agent desires – after all, it’s a hell of an advertisement for Newport Sports Management and the power they apparently wield. What’s a shame, however, is that despite Justin Schultz getting exactly he wants, by handling this situation the way Newport Sports Management has, they’re setting their client up for failure.

What Will Happen?

To reiterate: Justin Schultz Has Played Zero Games In The National Hockey League – and the NHL is a long step up from the NCAA. Who knows, maybe Schultz will sign wherever his heart desires and step out onto the ice for his first NHL shift, strip a player like Pavel Datsyuk of the puck, go the other way and score a spectacular goal on an end-to-end rush, and then proceed to dominate the NHL for the next 20 years.

There’s every chance, though, that he’ll stumble out of the gates and be subject to the kind of intense scrutiny and pressure usually reserved for the high profile, multi-million dollar superstar veteran player perceived of as being a free agent bust. But Justin Schultz hasn’t earned his high profile – any profile he has is a product of unrecognized potential and the exploitation of ridiculous loophole. Even if he doesn’t falter – if he’s simply ‘okay,’ will it be fair to Schultz to be the recipient of such pressure? Not necessarily, but in conducting this circus like he and his agents have, he’s brough it upon himself.

Schultz could have made it so much easier. The Ducks had every intention of signing him at the end of last year and putting him directly into their line-up. This would have burned one whole year off of his two-year entry-level deal, thereby making him a Restricted Free Agent following the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. He would have established himself (at least to some degree) as an NHL player – but instead he’s set to enter the NHL as perhaps the highest-profile 22-year-old rookie in recent memory, with all the pressure that that entails. He’s essentially asking teams to bet  on him, and there seems to be no shortage of organizations ready, willing, and able to ante up. That’s ballsy.

Regardless of whether or not he thinks he’s ready for that kind of scrutiny, he’s setting himself up to fail, and depending on which team he signs with (four Canadian teams are reportedly in the mix, including Toronto), the demolition show could be spectacular to watch.

The Aftermath

According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie:

By the time this piece is published, it is very likely that it will have leaked out just which team Schultz intends to sign with.

And on July 1st, Justin Schultz will do just that, with whichever team he decides will provide the best fit for him going forward. In one way, the circus will be over, but in other ways, it will have just begun. One thing is for certain: the first game between the Anaheim Ducks and [Insert_Team_Here] will be one to circle on the calendar.

Good luck, Justin.

(For what it’s worth, he seems to have lost a fan in Duck-for-now Bobby Ryan)

https://twitter.com/b_ryan9/status/218928680427192320

Collin Insley
As a lifelong hockey fan and resident of Southern California, he recently started a blog called SoCal Puck, which aims to explore all things hockey in Southern California. He grew up playing roller and ice hockey in the Orange County area and currently plays on several beer league teams. Collin also contributes at Sunbelt Hockey Journal.
Collin Insley
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13 Comments

  1. Oilers nail it again says:

    We’re still steamed that you gave us Dustin Penner. Can I get my own column here. This guy clearly knows little about hockey and talent evaluation. My guess is if Schultz would have signed with the ducks he would be wetting himself. Instead sour grapes

  2. It’s interesting the amount of vitriol lacing commentary regarding Schultz. And most if not all of it seems to be misplaced.
    The reason he’s a free agent is a loophole in the CBA. But let us not forget this same CBA allows teams to control players for up to four years without making any effort to sign them. If they should be injured during this period they get nothing. And the fact is they might have gotten an offer from another team with a different set of needs or player development methodology.
    One issue, pursuant to this point, is did Anaheim try to sign Schultz prior to 2012? If they didn’t, why not? If indeed they didn’t, then any sympathy for the Ducks seems misplaced. They knew the rules as well as any player agent, so delaying signing a player constitutes a bet that the result would be beneficial to the team. In this sense it’s no different than a team not trying to sign a player the summer before their final season under their current contract. If the player slips, maybe you get them cheaper, but if not, the price goes up, and there may be hard feelings which get in the way of re-signing the player.
    Secondly, what’s the problem with meeting with suitors in one location? As Bob McKenzie pointed out, the other option was a road trip/press gong show going from city to city, which would have been worse. No one held a gun to the teams involved, forcing them to come.
    Thirdly, since when is the idea of free agency such a shocker. For many years, Canadian teams watched as their stars left for bigger bucks south of the border. The Oilers themselves had Chris Pronger demand a trade a year after he signed a big contract with the team after the lockout, resulting in him going to the Mighty Quackers in a deal which has hurt the Oil to this day.
    The 2005 CBA changed the business of the NHL, which, when combined with the recovery of the Canadian Dollar has resulted in the balance of economic power in the league moving north. Free agency now benefits all teams in good markets, and means every team must be more diligent in their handling of player assets. That includes not delaying the signing of prospects.
    Finally, from the player’s perspective, is it unreasonable that a player would want to choose where they play, if possible? Let’s face facts: had he signed with the Ducks, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t have traded him, had they received the right offer. So his decision shows the same loyalty to the team that they might have had to him. And I’m not criticizing the Ducks here – the GM’s job is to improve the team, to build a champion, and if by trading any player you can do that, it’s the right thing to do. Every team should be doing this. But this goes both ways – you cannot fault a player who becomes a UFA for looking for the best fit for him.
    Schultz is a tantalizing prospect, but not yet a star NHLer. Right now, no one can be sure he ever will become one. But he and the Oilers seem to be a good match, at least in each other’s eyes. No one else has to like it, but when it comes to criticizing Schultz, or the Oilers, it’s wise to consider the entirety of the situation, and direct any criticism at the real source of the issue – the CBA.

    James Phieffer

    • James,

      To my knowledge, the Ducks did indeed try to sign Schultz following his Sophomore season at Wisconsin. He expressed a desire to return to school for his Junior year, and Bob Murray respected that decision, and didn’t press the issue. They were patient with him, and to make matters worse according to Murray, Schultz explicitly told Anaheim’s brass that he couldn’t wait to be a Duck. My how things change.

      I think that perhaps the real issue that has Anaheim fans so worked up is the blatant lie that Schultz told Murray and the management team. He was a prized prospect, and (evidently) the envy of the rest of the League. If he truly didn’t want to be a Duck, he at least owed it to them – the team that drafted him in the 2nd round (when every other team had at least one chance to pick him up) and were patient as he developed – to be honest with them so that Murray at least could have attempted to get something commensurate back in return for Schultz.

      Obviously being traded to a potentially undesirable team is a lot less sexy than having your pick of the League, but that Schultz didn’t show Anaheim at least the courtesy to be up front and honest about the situation is, to my mind, straight up embarrassing for the kid, and a hell of an insight into his character.

  3. Have fun FAILING wit the Coilers this season. I am going to laugh when they lose all there first overalls come contract time. The way they pay Horcoff and co, they will be even worse then they are now. I wonder how he is going to learn in a failing system and management playing with a garbage defence, in Coil Country. Good luck kid, your going to have a target on your back for a while after this.

  4. Awesome article! I find it astounding the ego’s on some of these young kids who haven’t even sniffed the NHL. I hope this loophole gets closed in the new CBA.

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