Addressing Ottawa’s Blue Line

If you’ve been a frequent visitor of The 6th Sens over the past few months, you’ve assuredly come across a number of posts that casually mentioned the lack of some high ceilinged defensive prospects within the system now that Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen are stalwarts amongst Ottawa’s top two pairings.

As often as management have lauded the development and progress of a Mark Borowiecki or an Eric Gryba or have included the name Patrick Wiercioch in conversations about the defence’s future, this trio could develop into decent players at the NHL level or they may not. When talking about projection, conservative estimates would probably place these players as bottom pairing guys or depth defencemen. Not that that’s a bad thing. The ability to develop young, cost effective replacements who can inherit the roster spots of departed veterans is important. However, for this organization to get to that next level in their retooling or rebuilding process, management inevitably will have to improve their top four defencemen through one of three avenues – trade, the draft or free agency.

Considering ownership’s intent not to be a spend to the salary cap ceiling, I’m going to throw cold water on the laps of anyone who has pitched a tent and suggested that Ottawa target Ryan Suter in free agency. Expecting management to spend frivolously on the open free agent market or Suter to select Ottawa with all money being equal, to put it bluntly, is simply unrealistic. Maybe there’s a chance that the organization could kick the tires on an underappreciated commodity like Jason Garrison, but don’t expect Suter to walk through that door anytime soon. And frankly, after Suter’s recent comments, I’m not sure I’d want him in Ottawa.

“Wherever I sign I want to be there for the rest of my career, and that affects my family, my wife, my kid, if we have more kids, everything plays into it.”

Rest of his career?

Suter’s 27 years of age. Assuming that he plays until the age of 40, given the uncertainty of what the parameters next CBA will include, who in their right mind would want to give him the term and dollars to make his dreams become a reality?

Rather than dabble with Suter or talk contract with less impressive alternatives in a weak market, if management is looking to acquire a player who will give them controllable years at a cost efficient price, it should look no further than Anaheim Ducks defensive prospect Justin Schultz.

Schultz, the Ducks second round pick (43rd overall) from the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, is considered one of the best defensive prospects in the NCAA and he recently was awarded the Spike Carlson Most Valuable Player Award by the University of Wisconsin.

The two-time first-team All-American became the first Badger defenseman to lead a team in goal scoring on his way to first-team all-league honors and a Hobey Baker Memorial Award top-10 finalist nod. He finished the season with 16 goals and 44 points to lead the nation’s defensemen in scoring for the second-consecutive season. 

If you’re wondering what kind of player Schultz is, I highly encourage you to read an interview conducted by Jason Gregor of OilersNation.com with Mike Eaves, father of former Senator Patrick Eaves and head coach of the University of Wisconsin hockey team.

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.

In light of the Rangers’ postseason success and reports that Scott Gomez will have the remainder of his deal bought out by the Canadiens, you may have noticed the attention given to Glen Sather’s fleece job that netted the Rangers Ryan McDonagh and Chris Higgins for Gomez – Elliotte Friedman touched upon the trade in his most recent 30 Thoughts blog post. Interestingly, much like Tim Erixon’s contract negotiations with the Calgary Flames last summer, the matter of Montreal not being able to get McDonagh to sign an entry level contract (ELC) of his own, hasn’t really been mentioned as a causal factor in the trade.

Now back to Schultz, he’s in a similar predicament with the Ducks. For some unbeknownst reason, he has elected not to sign an ELC. Under the parameters of the NHL’s current CBA, if he does not sign a contract by June 1st, he will become an unrestricted free agent who can negotiate with any NHL team. Interestingly under these circumstances, while he is open to sign with any team, his contract’s monetary value will still have to comply with the thresholds outlined within the CBA. With a maximum base salary of $875,000 being the most he can make on his entry level deal, he’ll be controllable, he’ll have a two-way contract and he’ll be cheap.

So what can Bryan Murray do?

Like Glen Sather, Murray can aggressively try to acquire Schultz’s exclusive negotiation rights before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. While risky, it could potentially give them an inside track on signing the prospect. Albeit, it’s worth mentioning that waiting on Schultz to reach free agency may have an equal amount of risk. Rather than lose him for nothing, there simply is no guarantee that the Ducks will not sell his rights to the highest bidder. And in the same vein, once Schultz hits the open market, Murray will have to convince Schultz, like 28 other teams, that his organization is the best place for him to develop.

So why would Schultz opt for Ottawa?

As outlined earlier, the restrictions of Schultz’s entry-level deal means that he is vulnerable to being demoted to the AHL and earning a minor league salary. For a player who has an opportunity to hand-pick his next destination, it doesn’t make much sense for Schultz to sign with a good team that has a strong blue line because it will likely cost him a six-figure salary and bonuses.

As a team that averaged the seventh-highest goals against per game rate (2.88) and averaged the second most shots allowed per game (32.0), Ottawa’s defensive weaknesses could potentially work in their favour. With the impending departures of veteran like Filip Kuba or possibly even Matt Carkner or Sergei Gonchar, there will be openings on Ottawa’s back end. Moreover, even with some inherent defensive issues, the Senators were a playoff team this season and with a young and exciting core group of players that Schultz could augment, Ottawa could be a very enticing destination for him.

While there was some speculation early on from TSN’s Bob McKenzie that the Oilers could potentially be considered the favorites to land Schultz, I’d like to remind everyone of their track record when it comes to enticing Kelowna products to play for the Oilers.

 

If Ottawa could procure the services of Schultz, it certainly would give them more flexibility when it comes to drafting the best player available in the draft and in overpaying to fill a need on July 1st – when the NHL’s unrestricted free agent market opens for business.

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