Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland appears to have set the tone early in the Justin Schultz sweepstakes.
Holland, who recently bid adieu to defencemen Nicklas Lidstrom (retirement) and Brad Stuart (trade to San Jose), is willing to guarantee a roster spot to the 21-year-old blue-liner who has yet to take a shift in a National Hockey League game, a team source told the Windsor Star.
Anaheim failed to sign the highly touted Schultz, fresh off a 44-point season at the University of Wisconsin, during a 30-day exclusive negotiating window after he left school and the Ducks’ 2008 second-round draft pick was declared an unrestricted free agent at midnight ET Monday.
Schultz is in Toronto to meet with his representative, Newport Sports Management, and was expected to begin fielding contract offers on Wednesday, with the free agent signing period beginning July 1.
Schultz and Newport found a loophole in the NHL’s soon-to-be-expired collective bargaining agreement that allows the player to test free agency because he played an extra year of junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League before attending Wisconsin.
'I like that he’s 22 [soon], he skates well, he’s close to being an NHL defenceman.' — Red Wings GM Ken Holland on UFA Justin Schultz
"We’ve contacted his agents [Pat Morris and Wade Arnott] to express an interest in signing him," Holland told reporters in Detroit. "There’s a tremendous opportunity [with Lidstrom and Stuart gone]. We’re trying to rebuild on the fly. We think he would be a good fit."
The Red Wings organization is known for giving its prospects time to develop in the American Hockey League but the mobile Schultz, who many hockey observers believe could fill a top-four role on an NHL blue-line next season, is proving to be a special case.
"I like that he’s 22 [soon], he skates well, he’s close to being an NHL defenceman," said Holland.
Blessed with a tremendous shot, Schultz can quarterback a power play. In three seasons at Wisconsin, he scored 40 goals and 113 points in 121 games.
The Badgers program has produced impending NHL free agent Ryan Suter along with fellow defencemen Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner and Red Wings prospect Brendan Smith, whom Holland said he wouldn’t have a problem seeing in the opening night lineup next season along with Schultz.
However, it’s been said Schultz, who hails from West Kelowna, B.C., would like to play closer to home or with former Wisconsin teammates.
That would put the Maple Leafs in the running as Gardiner, acquired from Anaheim in the Francois Beauchemin in February 2011, was Schultz’s defence partner at Wisconsin.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman wrote this week that he heard the Ducks allowed Leafs GM Brian Burke a window to sign Schultz at the NHL draft on the weekend but the latter passed.
Vancouver, Edmonton, Detroit, Chicago and the New York Rangers (McDonagh and forward Derek Stepan are former Badgers teammates) are also considered favourites to sign Schultz.
It’s believed 26 of the NHL’s 29 teams (excluding Anaheim) have expressed interest in Schultz, who might whittle down that list into the single digits by the end of Wednesday.
Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Post-Dispatch tweeted on Wednesday that the Blue Jackets had made an offer to Schultz/.
Under the CBA, Schultz will be restricted to a two-year, two-way entry-level contract with a maximum salary of about $925,000 US a season. Players aged 22 or 23 must sign entry-level contracts for their first two seasons.
Schultz can’t formally sign a contract until July 1.