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Justin Schultz Saga Creates NHL-Wide Drama

Justin Schultz doesn't want to be an Anaheim Duck, and thanks to the CBA, that's created a whirlwind of activity around the former Wisconsin Badger standout. Any NHL team can sign him come Sunday at 12 p.m.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The NHL free agent market isn't exactly full of big-time players. There are a couple -- Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, etc. -- but for the most part, the market is a bit underwhelming.

That, however, is only part of the reason why college hockey star Justin Schultz has picked up so much attention as July 1 approaches.

The former University of Wisconsin defenseman can sign with any team in the league once Sunday rolls around, thanks to a provision in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Schultz was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round in 2008. Because he went to play a year of junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League before joining the Badgers, the end of his junior season at UW marked four years since he was drafted.

In order to match the opportunities afforded to graduating seniors who were drafted before their freshman year of college, the CBA allows players like Schultz to withdraw from school after their junior year of college. Doing so opens up a 30-day window, during which the drafting team -- the Ducks in this case -- have exclusive negotiating rights. Once those 30 days are up, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent, one free to listen to team pitches immediately but not available to sign a contract until July 1 -- just like a normal UFA.


Some reporters have labeled this a loophole, but it's not that. It's a rule that was placed in the CBA on purpose, but that doesn't mean it's not flawed.

Once a player has gone four years from being drafted, he can become an unrestricted free agent, even in a case like this one where the drafting team has not renounced its rights to sign the player. This isn't a case where Anaheim doesn't think Schultz is worth signing to a deal.

Instead, Anaheim general manager Bob Murray has made it abundantly clear that the Ducks want to sign Schultz. The team's desire to sign him goes all the way back to March. When Wisconsin's season ended in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, the team's final game was played in Denver. The next night, the Ducks were scheduled to play the Colorado Avalanche in -- you guessed it -- Denver. Speculation was rampant the week of the playoff series that Schultz would join the Ducks and make his NHL debut in Denver if Wisconsin lost the series.

Instead, Schultz flew back to Madison with his teammates, and it wasn't long before the Ducks' chances of signing Schultz began to look ominous. Now, they seem virtually non-existent, and our friends at Anaheim Calling don't appear pleased.

Why do I think this is a flawed system? By exercising his option, Schultz is now an unrestricted free agent by his own volition. There is a gaggle of young NHL players facing expired contracts who don't have the luxury of becoming an unrestricted free agent by choice. Players like Evander Kane, Shea Weber, Mike Green, Tuukka Rask, and so many others have NHL experience, but can't become UFAs simply because they want to?

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.


Schultz indeed withdrew from school in May, and the Ducks' exclusive negotiating period has ended. That leaves him a free agent, and the frenzy has started.

There are 30 teams in the NHL who could end up making a bid for Schultz. His puck-moving, skating, and hockey sense is a match for virtually any system you can imagine, and the prospect of acquiring a top-four defenseman for the price of an entry-level contract is way too much for a team to pass up.

He'll have his choice, even though the steam has seemed to be headed in the general direction of Toronto. The Maple Leafs have an opening for a top-four defenseman after trading Luke Schenn to Philadelphia during the draft. One of the returning defensemen, Jake Gardiner, is a former teammate of Schultz's at Wisconsin.

I've said multiple times that I believe Schultz will end up with Toronto. It's not the only potentially attractive option, however. Schultz is from Kelowna, B.C., not terribly far from Vancouver. Another Canadian team -- the Oilers -- is expected to make a bid, and it's hard to argue that there isn't a team more in need of NHL-caliber defensemen than Edmonton. The Oilers could probably offer Schultz more ice time from the outset than anyone else can.

However, Detroit -- the current NHL home of former Schultz teammate, one-time Badger star defenseman Brendan Smith -- also has a gaping hole on the blue line, thanks to Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement. Teams like Minnesota could conceivably get involved in the sweepstakes, too, assuming there is a sweepstakes.

There is also the ugly "T" word that's been thrown around in the Schultz saga.


Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune -- one of the best beat writers in the NHL -- mentioned the possibility of tampering charges while filling in on a local radio station last month. It's something I've heard rumbling around, but nothing anyone has any concrete evidence on.

In a summer where there aren't a lot of marquee free agents, Schultz probably couldn't have picked a better time to make this play. He'll get plenty of attention from NHL teams this week, provided he hasn't already made up his mind.