The Dallas Stars may be coming off yet another disappointing season and the fourth straight without a postseason appearance, yet this is a franchise that has a solid core of players and an owner willing to spend to bolster the roster. While many feel the Stars could be a team that certainly improves over the next few seasons -- there's no doubting that there are a few gaping holes on this team that need to be addressed, most notably on defense.
The Stars have taken great lengths to improve the defensive unit the past few years, focusing on the position in the draft and trading for Alex Goligoski in 2010. Yet the absence of a dominant number one defenseman is something that is holding the team back from taking that step from mediocre to playoff contender, and a puzzle that the front office is attempting to solve much sooner than later.
While the Stars have Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth coming up through the system and Philip Larsen has shown tremendous promise in his first full NHL season, it's obvious that the Stars must look outside the organization to fill this void on the roster. The issue with searching outside the organization -- and what makes such players so highly coveted and high-priced -- is that such special players are few and far between, especially ones that are available to obtain. Trades are certainly a possibility but free agency also represents an option, although it's appearing more and more like the options in the open market are increasingly limited for such a defenseman.
An interesting situation is developing, however, that could lead to the Stars having the chance at an extremely rare opportunity -- to sign a NHL-ready, top-pairing defenseman who will turn 22 this summer.
Justin Schultz was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the 2008 draft, when he was playing with the Westside Warriors of the BCHL. Schultz was touted at the time as a decent offensively-gifted defenseman that was a bit on the small side, yet possessed great vision and a decent shot from the point. The next season he would score 50 points in 49 games with the Warriors, before heading to the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2009.
After a decent freshman season, Schultz proved to be one of the best defensemen in the nation his sophomore year with 47 points in 41 games. Schultz possessed just as much prowess defensively as he did on offense and received high praise as one of the top prospects in all of hockey, as he progressed to become perhaps the best all-around defenseman in the NCAA. He carried over that momentum to this past season, with 44 points in 37 games, with scouts stating that it was clear that Schultz no longer belonged in college hockey and was obviously ready for the NHL.
The issue here is that Schultz has still not signed a contract with the Anaheim Ducks and it appears he has no intention of doing so. Schultz de-registered from Wisconson last month, kicking off a 30-day exclusive negotiating period with the Ducks before he hits the open market on July 1. By most reports, it does not appear that the Ducks are going to be able to sign their prized draft pick by the June 24 deadline.
This has led to an extremely interesting situation that very rarely presents itself to the NHL. NHL teams are constantly battling for the services of the very few top defensemen that become available every year and with teams desperately hanging onto their own players, this has led to years where average defensemen receive elite contracts. This summer, teams have the chance to go after the proverbial "white whale" -- a 22 year old defenseman who has all the qualities of a future NHL star.
With Schultz set to hit free agency on July 1, speculation has been rampant about which teams are interested in the young defenseman. The Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks, NY Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and others are all reported to be interested in going after Schultz by the time free agency begins. In fact, there has been speculation that some tampering has already taken place -- with Schultz already having an agreement in place with the team in intends to sign with when free agency begins.
Of course, this conversation is not complete without a discussion of whether the Stars are interested in Schultz and whether he would even be interested in signing here in Dallas.
Justin Schultz turns 22 on July 6th, which means that he is limited to an initial contract length of two years as opposed to the normal three-year length we see with most entry-level contracts.The most important aspect of this situation, however, is that teams cannot simply out-bid each other for Schultz's services as normally happens in free agency. Because of the limits on initial contracts per the CBA, there is a hard cap to the amount that Schultz can sign for -- no matter who the team might be.
This means that all NHL teams that are interested in Schultz are essentially on the same playing field, at least financially. The list of teams interested is narrowed by those in need of such a defenseman and who have the organizational fortitude to be able to hold onto and offer Schultz the big payday he'll be facing a few years down the road.
Thus, the battle to land Schultz will come down to which team can offer him the most in a career. The frontrunner for Schultz could likely be Detroit, with Nicklas Lidstrom retiring and the Red Wings already likely interested in Ryan Suter. Most of the other teams reportedly interested either have the track record to be consistently competitive or have the franchise visibility and history that many players love -- the Oilers, Maple Leafs and Canadiens, for example.
So far, none of the reports about this situation have mentioned the Dallas Stars as a team that could be interested in Schultz. That doesn't mean that Joe Nieuwendyk and Tom Gaglardi are going to just sit idly by and not allow such a prime opportunity to pass them by. It could be argued that no team needs a player like Schultz more than the Dallas Stars, who have struggled so mightily to fill the shoes of Sergei Zubov and have let the opportunity to fill this role in the draft pass them by, most notably in 2009.
There should be no doubting that Schultz is worth such attention, one of the rare defensemen to come to the NHL who is just as effectively offensively as he is defensively. Cory Pronman of Hockey Prospectus ranked Schultz as the #10 prospect in all of hockey, saying;
Schultz looks filthy good every shift he takes for Wisconsin and he clearly doesn't belong in college anymore. His ability to make plays at both ends and control the game is pretty high end.
Mike Eaves, his coach at Wisconsin, also had this to say about his former player:
You can divide his skill set into two parts. First of all, he's wired as a real competitive young man. When he was a freshman, we were playing North Dakota. There was a little incident at the end of the game, and he wanted to jump off the bench and go get involved and take care of his teammates and such. He has a real fiery kind of competitive edge within him, and that's rare when you combine it with the fact that he is a very skilled hockey player.
His skating ability; his ability with the puck, both puck handing, both shooting the puck; and then his vision of the ice, he has got the whole package in terms of skills. Every day in practice, you can almost bet that he is going to be your hardest working player. So that's a great combination to have; that combination of skills in terms of ability, but then being wired the way he is to work as hard as he does and to be as competitive as he is.
Schultz gets compared to Drew Doughty (at least in regards to the good traits) and is also compared to his former teammate Jake Gardiner. Schultz is considered to be much more offensively talented than Gardiner, however, and if you've ever had the opportunity to see him play it's obvious why he's so highly touted. He's one of the smoothest skating defensemen you'll see with the puck and he is incredibly confident and aggressive carrying the puck into the offensive zone.
While he's not the biggest defenseman on the ice (he's listed at 6-1, 185), he more than holds his own in the defensive zone and like many great scoring defensemen his offensive prowess never allows for many chances the other way as it is.
So the big question here isn't whether the Stars should be interested in Schultz, it's whether the Stars even have a prayer that Schultz would be interested in them. There's a reason he's decided not to sign with the Ducks and it's likely much more than just a disagreement over contract terms. Schultz obviously wants the chance to sign with a team of his choosing and he's likely looking for the best destination for his career -- whether that's a team where he can be the top player on the roster or one that has the best opportunity for success is known only to him and his agent.
Where would the Stars fit into this equation? There's no doubting that he'd receive star treatment here in Dallas, although only among those already fanatical about the Stars. As much as the hardcore fans love this team, it's not like the Stars are receiving overwhelming media attention these past few years, and there's thoughts that this could be a hindrance in attempting to attract free agents.
Yet the Stars are also a young, talented team looking to build with the right pieces. Tom Gaglardi has come to Dallas and has made it known he purchased the team in order to build a winner, something that is certainly attractive to players looking for bigger roles on a team on the rise.
The Stars have been involved in similar situations in the past, most notably when Fabian Brunnstrom signed with Dallas above the Red Wings and several other teams. The Stars also lost out on Jonas Gustavsson; it could be argued that neither player was ever worth the attention and trouble both situations garnered. This case, however, is much different as Schultz represents almost as sure a thing as there exists when it comes to projecting the future success of a prospect.
The Stars are in desperate need of a player like Schultz, but so many others in the NHL are in the same situation and the Stars could be a victim of their own unfortunate circumstances of the past few seasons. No matter what the reports say, however, there's no doubting that the Stars should be just as intrigued and interested as every other team that needs a top NHL defenseman.