Suffice to say this was not exactly what Justin Schultz had in mind when he touched off a bidding war for his services after leaving the University of Wisconsin two years ago. He most certainly couldn’t have been expecting this after tearing up the American League during the lockout. No, a one-year bridge deal for a lower salary cap number was definitely not in the cards.
But this is the situation in which Schultz finds himself two years into his up-and-down NHL career. The Edmonton Oilers signed the restricted free agent to a one-year deal worth $3.675 million instead of succumbing to the temptation to ink him to a long-term deal for $5 million-plus per season. The Oilers may end up paying for their short-term thinking, but it’s a risk they were willing to take.
Even though Schultz will make more money on this deal than he did in either of the first two, it’s interesting to note that with performance bonus money, Schultz’s cap hit on his entry level deal was $3.775 million, which is $100,000 more than his salary for 2014-15. The only solace the player can take in that deal is that he’ll continue to be the highest-paid defenseman named Schultz in the NHL, with Nick Schultz pulling down $1.25 million with the Philadelphia Flyers and Jeff Schultz making $850,000 with the Los Angeles Kings.
Truth is, the Oilers still aren’t sure in what they have in Schultz, a player who could have signed with any team when became an unrestricted free agent out of college two years ago. And it wasn’t as though the Oilers outbid everyone because it was an entry-level deal. No team in the league could have offered him more, including the Anaheim Ducks, who drafted him 43rd overall in 2008.
There is no doubt Schultz has sublime offensive talent. His instincts and mobility at the back end make him a dangerous offensive threat. But his lack of physical strength and his defensive shortcomings make him just as dangerous in his own end of the ice. In short, he creates offense in both ends.
This is probably to be expected from a young player, but the worry about Schultz was that he wasn’t an 18-year-old kid coming out of major junior hockey. By the time he played his first NHL game, Schultz was a 22-year-old with three years of collegiate experience and a half a season in the AHL. The fact that he still has trouble – lots of it sometimes – with defensive assignments indicates that there are some very bad habits and/or a lack of awareness that need to be addressed.
And that’s where one of the Oilers under-the-radar acquisitions this summer comes in. In June, the Oilers moved assistant coach Kelly Buchberger into player personnel and cut loose fellow assistant Steve Smith and brought in veteran assistant coach Craig Ramsay. Oilers coach Dallas Eakins made it clear from the time of the hiring that Ramsay would play an integral role with the team. He’ll be on the bench for every game and will run the defense corps and the power play.
And that’s where this becomes so crucial to Schultz. Ramsay has long been highly respected as one of the great defensive mentors in the NHL. He has almost no ego and therefore will not threaten Eakins, and instead will focus his efforts on getting the worst defensive team in the league to play better in its own end. He is one of the great teachers in the game and a man from who Schultz can learn an enormous amount.
A GM once told me that more than any other person, Ramsay was responsible during his days as an assistant coach for the Boston Bruins for turning Johnny Boychuk into the player who will earn $3.4 million this season.
By all accounts, Justin Schultz is a smart young man. If he can get his defensive game anywhere near the level of his offensive game, he’ll cash in on a future contract and the Oilers will have a star player on their hands. And Craig Ramsay might just be the guy to help make it happen.