How and when we get on the other side of the virtual worldwide lockdown is yet unknown, but if there is a return-to-play of sports, it figures the upcoming free agency periods will be a mad dash of cash, panic, and opportunity. Under one discussed return-to-play scenario for the NHL season, the Stanley Cup could be awarded in later August with a short offseason. If such event transpires, teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins who have contracts to dish and money to save will have a long way to go and a short time to get there.
Beyond the Penguins goalie situation, the Penguins have a prominent decision on their blue line. What will they do with Justin Schultz, and what will the defenseman command on the open market?
Three years ago, Schultz seeming broke through to another level. He sank in his waning moments with the Edmonton Oilers but soared in his first full season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. After helping the Penguins win the 2016 Stanley Cup as an NHL trade deadline acquisition, fate thrust Schultz to the head of the class in 2016-17 when top defenseman Kris Letang suffered a season-ending neck injury.
Justin Schultz pounded the stat sheet like an All-Star. Schultz finished with 51 points, including a torrid 34 points (9g, 25a) in 30 games from early November through the middle of February.
He was unstoppable. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup with he and Ian Cole as a primary defensive pairing, and the Penguins showed Schultz the money. The pending restricted free agent defenseman signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal. The deal was as much a “show me” type contract as it was a reward for his career rebound.
However, Schultz has not followed his 2016-17 performance with anything similar. In the following three seasons, including the pandemic-paused 2019-20 season, Schultz has just 54 points in 138 games.
Injuries dogged Schultz, including a broken leg last season. But slumps and confidence issues have also taken a bite out of his production, too. Schultz badly slumped in 2017-18, and frustration got to him. He admitted such to PHN after the season. This season, it appeared frustrations were again getting to him. You can watch the PHN locker room video and read the story here.
This season, Schultz has only 13 points in 46 games as injuries have kept him out of the lineup, and rookie John Marino began to take away ice time. Schultz is also an ungodly minus-13 on a team with one of the best goal differentials in the league.
It’s been a rough go for the 29-year-old defenseman.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is Justin Schultz the power-play quarterback, offensive defenseman capable of heavy top-four minutes? Or is he regressing to his career mean after riding the wave of confidence in a breakout year?
It wasn’t long ago, Washington Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was the belle of the ball. In 2017, the New York Rangers signed Shattenkirk to a four-year, $26 million contract. Last summer, they bought him out, and he signed a one-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning for a paltry $1.75 million.
Riding high in April. Shot down in May.
The Penguins injuries have exacerbated Schultz’s defensive woes and blue line shuffling. He’ll never be confused with a lockdown defenseman, but this season has been especially tricky for the Kelowna, B.C. native.
The Shattenkirk arc seems appropriate, and Schultz is likely in for an unhealthy pay cut.
Or, another GM could see Schultz as ready for a new scene. Schultz’s physical skills are not in question. His quick skating, vision, and puck movement make him a formidable offensive defenseman.
Current Philadelphia Flyer rearguard Matt Niskanen may be another comparable defenseman, though Niskanen hasn’t signed a new contract in nearly six years. Niskanen makes about $5.75 million per season, but his contract expires this offseason–whenever that may be.
Similar to Schultz, Minnesota Wild d-man Matt Dumba had a huge year in 2017-18 with 50 points and signed a five-year, $30 million deal. After two seasons of injuries and 20-point production, Dumba was oft mentioned in trade talks at the 2020 NHL trade deadline.
Dumba is a great skater and big hitter who makes mistakes. In that regard, his game differs from the more controlled Schultz. Perhaps to Schultz’s advantage.
The 2020-21 NHL salary cap is a mystery. If you know how this situation will play out, the NHL bean counters would like to hear from you and your crystal ball. For the sake of argument, let us assume the NHL has some conclusion to its season, and the salary cap hit is negligible because the NHLPA and NHL agree to an enormous escrow payment back to the owners for 2019-20 and project healthy returns in 2021.
That could be how it goes. Or not.
Without a growing salary cap, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have to make tough decisions. They must re-sign Jared McCann and one, or both of their goalies need new contracts. Dominik Simon, Evan Rodrigues, and Sam Lafferty are also RFAs.
The Penguins have about $15 million to spend, assuming a flat cap. They’ll have enough for the essentials, but not luxuries. A goalie and McCann figure to eat up about 8-$9 million, leaving the Penguins about $6 million, maybe $7 million for everyone else.
Unless Justin Schultz lowers his price to the $3 million or lower mark, he’ll play elsewhere next season. Unfortunately for the Penguins, and fortunately, for Schultz, he figures to be a 3-$4 million buy. He’ll take a hit for his performance this season, but at 29-years-old with excellent physical talents, Schultz can help a team in need of offense.
Shattenkirk will also be on the market this summer, too.
The Penguins have Marino able and ready for the top-four duty. The Penguins can probably find a solid third-pair defenseman on the market for a price in their budget. Is Schultz the guy? Probably not.
Of course, the market may course correct Schultz’s salary and place him squarely back in the Penguins lap, but he may need another fresh start, too. It’s been a rough three years.
Dumba got $6 million, but teams won’t be in a giving mood, as many will lose money this season. So, generous Day 1 of free agency contracts may take a year off.
Without the benefit of inside dirt or preliminary discussions to base an educated guess, we’ll put Justin Schultz in the $10-$12 million range over three years, maybe a commensurate fourth year if multiple teams are interested.
And that’s probably not the Pittsburgh Penguins.