With National Hockey League unrestricted free agency here, it’s time for every hockey fan to become a fantasy general manager, dreaming of putting the perfect puzzle pieces together to build a championship team.
My fantasy league is a bit different. It’s a world where all young phenoms understand their privileged situation and respect the countless hours that scouts spend in far-flung arenas before the players are honoured with the gift of being drafted into an NHL organization.
Far too often that’s not the case, as in the story of Justin Schultz, who has turned his back on the Anaheim Ducks and suddenly become as popular among NHL general managers as Justin Bieber is among adolescent girls.
The GMs will be tripping over each other in Toronto Wednesday, promising Schultz and his agents the moon — and plenty of ice time — in the first free agency war of the summer.
The Senators are in the game, along with apparent front-runners including Detroit Edmonton, Chicago, Toronto, Chicago and the New York Rangers. And no wonder. It’s as close to a freebie as there is in the NHL. After three seasons as a standout offensive defenceman at the University of Wisconsin, Schultz, who turns 22 next week, is already a polished prospect. As an incoming rookie, he’s a bargain, subject to an entry level contract of $925,000.
Yet at the same time, the background to the whole situation must also seem a tad unsettling to NHL general managers.
Back in 2008, the Ducks took a gamble on the then 6-1, 160-pound Schultz, playing with the Westside Warriors in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. The Ducks saw past the size deficiency, selecting him 43rd overall in the 2008 entry draft, held here at Scotiabank Place. Interestingly enough, the Senators held the 42nd selection, opting for Patrick Wiercioch, another lanky defenceman from B.C. The Senators are still waiting for Wiercioch to blossom into an everyday NHL defenceman.
That’s the nature of second round selections: In most cases, there’s something missing that prevents them from being first round choices. The science of scouting is anticipating which of those 17-year-olds have the best chance of developing into NHL-calibre players.
The Ducks took that leap, investing in Schultz and allowing him to progress and grow into his body at the NCAA level. They had offered Schultz a chance to sign an NHL deal following the 2010-11 season, only to be told Schultz wanted to return for a third season at Wisconsin. As his 2011-12 university season was winding down, the Ducks again extended an offer, telling him he could step directly into the NHL to close out the past season.
Then, when it came time for Schultz to commit, he opted instead to kiss the organization goodbye and become a free agent.
You know that feeling when a slapshot hits you in the nether regions? That’s akin to the way Ducks management felt about the decision. The Ducks have since warned they could file tampering charges against the NHL team that eventually signs him, but the nasty words can hardly soothe the pain from watching their own prospect skate away for nothing.
Schultz might argue that the Ducks have slipped as an organization since the 2008 draft and the defence corps, which boasted Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer during the 2007 Stanley Cup, is a shell of its former shelf. Jake Gardiner, Schultz’s good friend from their days together at Wisconsin, was also traded to Toronto, adding to Schultz’s displeasure.
Still, if those are the arguments, 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 hidden 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 loophole, 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.
Players with enough talent have always been able to manipulate situations. Eric Lindros thumbed his nose at Quebec, forcing the trade mess which landed him in Philadelphia. Bryan Berard didn’t like the situation in the early days of the Senators, prompting the deal which brought Wade Redden to Ottawa. Need we re-visit Alexei Yashin? Last fall, Kyle Turris tried to wait out Phoenix in a contract stalemate, eventually receiving his wish by being traded to the Senators.
The fun and games even happen in the junior ranks, where many of the most talented young midgets claim they’ll go the NCAA route unless they’re selected by a particular team.
The tricks will go on, of course, but that doesn’t make them right.
Ultimately, the team that lands Schultz will revel in the great coup, but the ploy doesn’t look good on either the kid or the NHL.