In April, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said he would address the team’s positional trades “the old fashioned way” through trades, not free agency.
But that could change at 12:01 a.m. ET Monday when U.S. collegiate defenceman Justin Schultz, a player Burke drafted in the second round in 2008 while GM of the Anaheim Ducks, becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Schultz, 21, and his representative, Newport Sports Management in Toronto, found a loophole in the soon-to-be-expired collective bargaining agreement that allows the player to test free agency because he played an extra year of major junior hockey in British Columbia Hockey League before attending the University of Wisconsin.
Schultz is considered an elite offensive defenceman who many observers believe could step into the NHL next season as a top-four blue-liner. He reportedly will be in Toronto on Tuesday and can begin to field offers Wednesday.
“The competition for Schultz will be every bit as intense as the competition for [unrestricted free agents Ryan] Suter and [Zach] Parise,” former NHL forward-turned broadcaster Ray Ferraro told a Canadian sports radio station recently.
Schultz is a six-foot-two, 185-pound right-handed shooting defenceman fresh off a strong season with the U. of Wisconsin Badgers in which he scored 16 goals and 44 points in 37 games. In three seasons, he has posted 40 goals and 73 assists for 113 points in 121 contests.
It’s been said the native of West Kelowna, B.C., would like to play closer to home or with former Wisconsin teammates. He reportedly also wants guaranteed playing time on a NHL roster.
That would put the Maple Leafs in the running as Toronto rearguard Jake Gardiner, acquired from Anaheim along with forward Joffrey Lupul for defenceman Francois Beauchemin in February 2011, was Schultz’s defence partner at Wisconsin.
Vancouver, Edmonton, Detroit, Chicago and the New York Rangers (forward Derek Stepan and defenceman Ryan McDonagh are former Badgers teammates) appear to be the favourites.
There won’t be a financial bidding war among those teams or any of the NHL’s other 25 clubs because Schultz can’t be offered more than a standard entry-level contract.
Under the CBA, players between the ages of 18 and 21 must sign entry-level contracts for their first three seasons. The maximum entry-level salary this past season was $925,000 US.
Ducks management, mystified at Schultz’s souring on the organization, appear to be moving forward. Five of the team’s eight picks at the draft over the weekend were defencemen, including its final four selections.