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Penguins free agents: Justin Schultz will be the priority

The Penguins have started negotiations with restricted free agent Justin Schultz. Now, what to expect?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

All things considered, the Pittsburgh Penguins are very fortunate Justin Schultz wasn't born one week earlier. With a July 6, 1990 birthday, Schultz is juuust too young for the 6/30 deadline of NHL free agency. So instead of being an unrestricted free agent, had he been 27 years old on this July 1, Schultz will be a restricted free agent for one more season. That's likely the reason the Pens will be able to re-sign him.

The last time the Pens had a smooth-skating, offensively gifted right-handed defenseman in his 20's hit the UFA market, it was Matt Niskanen in 2014. Pittsburgh didn't have the cap space to retain him and Niskanen was quickly snapped up to a max term of 7 years and $5.75 million cap hit by the Washington Capitals. If Schultz was on the same market, he might command the same type of contract from a different NHL team.

Instead, being restricted, he will be closely tied to Pittsburgh since NHL teams don't usually make aggressive moves to sign each other's RFAs. The good news is negotiations have already begun, per Jason Mackey in the Post-Gazette:

"It’s early," Arnott told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But we’ve had some good, positive discussions."

The latest of those talks occurred at the NHL draft over the weekend, in Chicago, and Arnott anticipates chatting with Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and his staff more this week.

The date both sides are likely shooting for is July 5, when, at 5 p.m., any notification of player-elected salary arbitration must be given

In this case, arbitration would be an enemy of the Pens. Almost always NHL teams and players end up avoiding arbitration, and in this case Pittsburgh needs to. Arbitration means a one-year deal which means Schultz goes the way of Niskanen to a UFA salary somewhere else after next season.

"We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did," Arnott said. "The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded."

Rutherford should have no problem rewarding Schultz. He’s admitted on several occasions that the Penguins would like retain Schultz and that they’re well aware he’s going to command more than $1.4 million or even likely north of $3.9 million, his old cap number.

Reality and comparable contracts put a possible Schultz deal in the $4 million-$5 million range.

A long-term 4-5 year deal in that range would seem fair for the Penguins. Term shouldn't really be an issue, Schultz will be in his 27 year old season next year, so even a 6 year deal only carries him through his age-32 season, which for a great skating defenseman shouldn't be any red flags at all. Giving Schultz about 5 years buys him a lot of financial security, which is the whole reason the player would sign now in the $4-5 range instead of the uncertainty and risk of suffering an injury or bad season that could spoil his UFA value next year.

As we said recently, the Pens can even reasonably go above $5 million, though hopefully they can negotiate the lowest possible to best help the team's salary cap moving forward. Still, the market value for Schultz is north of $5 million, so I don't think it would be too shocking for his deal to end up in that range.

Jim Rutherford mentioned a few months ago that Schultz was his priority, and he does tend to move quick on his priorities. So, ideally, we'll have an agreement made with Schultz here soon so that Pittsburgh will know how much money exactly that they will have left for their plans on July 1 with still a couple of important holes to fill.