Justin Schultz is a restricted free agent. His last contract paid him $3.675 million on a one-year deal, and he probably isn’t worth the money but it’s awfully difficult to sign him for less now.
The Oilers’ new general manager, Peter Chiarelli, will need to decide how to proceed, and there aren’t any really easy answers.
As always the “I’m not a lawyer” caveat applies here, but after looking through the relevant sections of the collective bargaining agreement I believe Chiarelli essentially has five options:
- Negotiate a new contract prior to the qualifying offer deadline of June 25.
- Trade Schultz to another team prior to the qualifying offer deadline of June 25.
- Issue a qualifying offer of $3.675 million.
- Take Schultz to club-elected arbitration in lieu of a qualifying offer.
- Issue no qualifying offer and don’t take Schultz to arbitration, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Before making a decision, we need to get a good read on Schultz’s actual value. Schultz plays heavy minutes at even-strength and on the power play but has virtually no role on the penalty kill. How much value does he bring in those disciplines?
Schultz’s Value: Power Play
It’s probably necessary to write a multi-piece series to fully evaluate where Schultz ranks among power play defencemen, so this is of necessity a bare bones description.
Schultz has some real strengths. His best attribute is probably his playmaking vision; he generally leads the Oilers’ zone entries and is adept at distributing the puck from the point position. He’s a good skater and has a good wrist shot. He’s a right shot, which matters. His greatest weakness is that he lacks a cannon from the point and as a rule last season teams didn’t worry too much about the point shot when they defended against the Oilers’ power play.
There are a lot of numbers I could dig into, but I’ll focus on one: points per hour. Using War on Ice, I created a list of every defenceman to play at least 150 minutes on the power play since 2012-13 and then ranked them by point production. Schultz has scored 3.75 points/hour over that span, a figure which ranks him No. 41 of 109 options. If we compare him strictly against first unit power play guys (for these purposes, players averaging 2.5 minutes/game or more) his comparables are as follow:
- Slava Voynov: 3.84 points/hour (2.57 TOI/game)
- John Klingberg: 3.83 points/hour (2.93 TOI/game)
- Dion Phaneuf: 3.76 points/hour (3.34 TOI/game)
- Justin Schultz: 3.75 points/hour (3.13 TOI/game)
- Alex Goligoski: 3.71 points/hour (2.68 TOI/game)
- Cam Fowler: 3.64 points/hour (2.78 TOI/game)
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 3.62 points/hour (3.88 TOI/game)
Schultz is also in the range of players like Dan Boyle and Alex Pietrangelo (they rank slightly higher) and Lubomir Visnovsky and Drew Doughty (they rank slightly lower). It’s a good place to be. The Oilers’ power play has had some ups and downs during Schultz’s time in Edmonton but on balance this strikes me as a reasonable ranking. At No. 41 Schultz is a legitimate top power play option or an awesome second unit weapon.
Schultz’s Value: Even Strength
I’m going to lead with Schultz’s primary strength: offence. All the things that make him a good power play option apply to even-strength as well; there aren’t a lot of defencemen you’d rather see trailing the attacking forwards on an odd-man rush. Among the 192 defencemen who have played 1,500 even-strength minutes since 2012-13, Schultz ranks No. 56 in terms of points/hour (0.82, in the same range as Paul Martin and Brent Seabrook).
That ability also helps him in the defensive zone. Schultz had a nasty campaign in 2014-15 in terms of taking/making a pass, regressing significantly in those areas, but over the bulk of his NHL career he’s been adept at moving pucks out of his own end of the rink and that has significant value.
He also has major warts. At 6’2”, 196 pounds he has average size but regrettably doesn’t play a remotely physical game; he has a good stick but if the pokecheck doesn’t work he’s next to useless at taking the puck away from an opponent (he’s so infamous for this that Twitter’s Cameron Thomson coined the phrase “to jultz”, meaning to reach awkwardly for the puck with one hand on the stick; the term caught on quickly in Oil Country). He cheats for offence, often getting caught up ice, and his defensive positioning isn’t great even when he’s back. I lost track of the number of times he failed to take the cross-ice lane away on a two-on-one; at some point one would assume he’d figure it out just based on repetition.
Shift length is an issue, too. Schultz averaged 27.0 shifts per game and played 22:36 per night; for the sake of contrast Mark Fayne averaged 26.6 shifts per game and just 17:56 per night. Some of that relates to usage (power play vs. penalty kill) but Schultz just doesn’t seem good at taking advantage of opportunities to get off the ice.
Numbers-wise, Schultz doesn’t come across well. I did an in-depth comparison to Jeff Petry last season; this year I’ll do the same thing but this time to Mark Fayne. Statstics used here come from the marvelous hockeyanalysis.com.
Firstly, it’s important to realize that Schultz has a massive advantage in terms of the teammates he plays with. Schultz spent 42.6 percent of his ice-time this year with the quintet of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Benoit Pouliot and David Perron. Fayne spent just 35.5 percent of his time with that group. They spent a comparable amount of time with middle-tier forwards, with Schultz having a slight edge there. The difference was made up with fourth-line/fringe NHL types. Schultz spent just 23.7 percent of his ice-time with Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks and the AHL crew; Fayne spent fully 33.4 percent of his time with that group.
Schultz spent a lot of time with good players and Fayne didn’t. Fayne also faced top-pairing opponents while Schultz came in sixth among regular Oilers defencemen, ahead of only Keith Aulie. Given quality of competition/teamamtes effects, if Schultz and Fayne were identical players we’d expect Schultz to out-perform Fayne by a wide margin when paired with the same partner. What actually happened?
- Both Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference were much better with Fayne than Schultz, despite starting far more frequently in the defensive zone with Fayne.
- Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin and Keith Aulie all posted better Corsi numbers with Schultz, but under far less trying circumstances. Ignoring the big advantages in quality of opposition and teammates that Schultz enjoyed, that trio averaged an 8.8 percent Corsi bump but also a 20.2 percent zonestart bump.
- Digression: I’ve never understood why Marincin/Schultz hasn’t been tried for any length of time in the NHL. They were a very good AHL pair in 2012-13 and they’ve been great in cameos together in the majors.
There’s some room for interpretation in those numbers, but as I read them Fayne looks like a much better defenceman than Schultz. Despite playing with less capable forwards, against better opponents and getting buried with shift after shift starting in the defensive zone, Fayne had better results than Schultz with two of five partners.
Mileage is going to vary, but at this point I have difficulty concluding that Schultz is any better than a No. 4 option at even-strength, and frankly I’m skeptical he’s even that. Ideally, I think he’s a third-pairing offensive specialist at evens and a top-unit power play defenceman.
Schultz’s Value & the Oilers’ Options
So, what do the Oilers do?
Schultz isn’t worth $3.675 million, so issuing a qualifying offer would be a non-starter for me. Arbitration is a better answer but still isn’t great because the arbiter can’t knock his contract value down more than 15 percent ($3.124 million), and arbitration not only tends to open up rifts between players and teams but also won’t necessarily result in a salary deduction.
Signing Schultz to a contract prior to arbitration stinks, too, because he knows he’s not getting less than that $3.124 million number and his agents still doubtless dream of a big year on the power play and big dollars in the future.
Walking away is difficult because Schultz is a young player with some upside and a bad defence won’t be made better by losing assets for nothing.
The best option for the team, in my view, is to trade the player. The return won’t necessarily be great, but it can probably help. Options might include a player like Dustin Byfuglien (a year away from free agency with a $5.2 million cap hit and a turbulent history in Winnipeg) or Dion Phaneuf (a good defenceman who has a tough $7.0 million cap hit until 2021). Ideally the Oilers would have moved Schultz last year, but it’s too late to worry about that now.
Peter Chiarelli should aggressively shop the player. Failing a trade, all he has are options so bad that just walking away might legitimately be the best of them.
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