During the 2015-16 season, the Edmonton Oilers traded Justin Schultz to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 2008 second round pick of the Ducks failed to live up to lofty expectations in Edmonton.
Schultz’s first season in Pittsburgh was promising. He had eight points in 18 games playing in a very limited role and was not a mainstay in the roster when the playoffs arrived. But before the Penguins and Schultz won the 2016 Cup, he had already made a positive impression on head coach Mike Sullivan.
“I’ve said this all along that what [Schultz has] brought to our team is his mobility, his ability to make a first pass,” Sullivan said in the first round of the 2016 Playoffs. “He sees the ice pretty well, he has good offensive instincts, he can help us on a power play and he joins the rush extremely well.”
The Penguins didn’t want to lose the right-handed shooting defenseman when he became a restricted free agent last summer. General manager Jim Rutherford re-signed Schultz to a one-year, $1.4 million “show me” contract. Compared to the one-year contract he signed with the Oilers, it was a significant drop in pay.
That contract proved to be an absolute steal, as the puck-moving defenseman broke out last season. Schultz had the best cost-per-point among all NHL defensemen who weren’t playing on entry-level contracts. While filling in for an injured Kris Letang, he was one of nine defensemen to score 50 or more points last season.
Schultz also led all Penguins defensemen in points in the 2017 playoffs. He played a key role in helping the Penguins succeed without Letang. The Penguins power play remained a lethal weapon because Schultz rose to the occasion. And that was one of the reasons why the Penguins won a second consecutive Stanley Cup.
After falling out of favor in Edmonton, Schultz proved this year — with an exclamation point — that he belongs in the NHL. And now it’s time for the pending restricted free agent to get paid.
Keeping Schultz in Pittsburgh could prove to be an expensive endeavor for Rutherford. Schultz is worth more because he plays on the right side and right-handed defensemen who can move the puck are always in high demand. However, the Penguins have a lot of players to sign this offseason. So if the two sides can’t agree to terms, things could get interesting in a hurry.
“He’s the top priority when the season ends,” Rutherford admitted recently. “It’s not whether I can make it work, it’s more whether we can make it work. Him and us. Does he get a big raise? Of course he gets a big raise, which he well deserves, but we’re probably not going to be able to give him what he thinks he should get. We still control him for one year with arbitration, but then the arbitration number could come higher than what we can fit in the cap.”
So, what exactly is Schultz worth?
Boston’s Torey Krug signed a four-year deal worth $21 million dollars last offseason after a 44-point year. Tyson Barrie was 24 years old when he signed his four-year, $22 million deal with the Avalanche. Both of those contracts carry cap hits north of $5.1 million. It’s also worth noting that Barrie is right-handed defender, while Krug plays on the left. Schultz had more points than both of them last season. He is also, by far, the highest-scoring pending restricted free agent this offseason
Schultz is more than a productive power play quarterback. He also has solid possession numbers and is more than serviceable in the defensive zone. It may be hard for some Oilers fans to believe, but Schultz’s next contract could easily carry a $5 million cap hit. But can the Penguins afford it?
All signs point to Schultz signing a significant extension. Because Marc-Andre Fleury waived his no-movement clause for the expansion draft the Penguins should have room to sign him. Another factor to consider is the potential increase in the salary cap itself. James Mirtle of The Athletic reported yesterday that the salary cap is expected to increase to $75 million next season. But it isn’t that simple.
The Penguins currently have 10 forwards and three defensemen under contract next season. Schultz is one of the team’s five main restricted free agents. To re-sign those players and fill those roster spots there is about $13 million in cap space to play with (before any increase). Needless to say, it’s going to get tight if Pittsburgh re-signs Schultz.
Rutherford’s entire offseason might be starting with the hope of extending Schultz at a discount.
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