Yesterday an important move was made in the NHL that could have some ripple effect on the Pittsburgh Penguins and their defenseman Justin Schultz.
The Carolina Hurricanes traded right-handed puck moving defenseman Justin Faulk to the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Joel Edmundson and prospect Dominik Bokk. The teams also exchanged late draft picks. Shortly after, the Blues announced a six year, $45.5 million ($6.5m cap hit) extension for Faulk.
How does this apply to Pittsburgh? If you’re the Penguins, you probably weren’t thinking of moving Schultz via a trade anytime soon anyways. Now based on this return, you definitely aren’t. Edmundson is a lesser (but slightly cheaper) defender, Bokk is a decent prospect - but a prospect nonetheless.
The bigger future impact of this equation might be the contract that was signed. Schultz is two years old than Faulk, but the two fit a very similar profile as two RHD considered to have good puck skills and that can use their feet and hands to advance the puck and are proven generators of offense. There aren’t a ton of defensemen like that who actually make it to the free agent market at a prime age. Faulk won’t be one of them. But Schultz might, given the Pens’ tight salary cap situation.
And while The Athletic reported just a couple of weeks ago that, “Schultz’s representatives and the Penguins haven’t discussed the possibility of a new contract,” it’s interesting to think up an exercise to use Faulk’s deal for both of these parties. As in: if you presented this contract in front of the Pens and Schultz, which one or either or neither would be likely to want to sign it?
Schultz has only played 170 games in his three full seasons in Pittsburgh (an average of 56 per year). A six year contract, in line with probably how a negotiation would turn out for him, would take him through his age 30-35 seasons. That’s important since it likely represents the last big money earning years that he will have as a player. The security of locking in $45.5 million for that time feels like a pretty fair proposition for him. The player may always want to “bet on himself” or see what the market may bear, but advising from that perspective I would certainly think that’s a contract to advise to sign right now.
As far as the team goes, it doesn’t seem as palatable of an agreement at this time. Certainly not with Pittsburgh having $62.7 million of salaries on the books currently for the 2020-21 season - which doesn’t include what figures to be raises for players like Matt Murray and Jared McCann, and then also dealing with Schultz and fellow impending unrestricted free agent Alex Galchenyuk.
This could change though, general manager Jim Rutherford shuffled around multiple pieces last season - sometimes trading out salaries in future seasons (like Jamie Oleksiak) but sometimes bring in contracts (like Erik Gudbranson and Nick Bjugstad). In the future, given the crunch of free agents, one would figure he will have to prioritize sending out more salaries.
No matter what happens, would the Pens feel right about committing a big chunk of their limited space for Schultz? Right now, probably not, which is a big reason why there hasn’t been any negotiations initiated yet.
This season is a very important one for Schultz to show he can remain available and also productive. Schultz has only recorded 42 points since the start of the 2017-18 season (in 92 games). He scored 51 points (in 78 games) in his breakout 2016-17 season alone.
If Schultz can be more like 2016-17, he’ll earn the big bucks on a long-term deal — whether it comes from Pittsburgh or somewhere else. If his season is injury-riddled, it remains to be seen how much drawing power he’ll have. Worries about injury forced defenseman Jake Gardiner to look for term, not really find it, and accept a four year deal worth $4.05 million a year late in the free agency process.
Will Schultz be in line for a contract more like Faulk’s big money and six years or Gardner’s more discounted rate and term? Obviously it’s a big difference between a $45.5 million guarantee and a $16.1 contract. Time is the Penguins’ friend in this instance, because it will help answer the question with evidence (or not) on what their interest would be appropriate.
But, perhaps also unfortunately for them on the flip-side of the coin, time is also partly the enemy because the clock is ticking towards July 1st, 2020. For Schultz — and Galchenyuk too for that matter — if the answers provided this season comes back as a resounding individual success, it will give the player the leverage to command possibly more than the Pens can afford to fit in their structure.
And, as mentioned, especially with a wheelin’ and dealin’ manager like Rutherford, that salary structure can always change in the blink of a transaction. If Rutherford is both able and willing to move some of his higher priced players in the recent future, he might yet find more space for his upcoming free agents. Any or all of Bjugstad, Gudbranson, Jack Johnson, Bryan Rust and maybe even Patric Hornqvist, (though his full no trade clause could complicate efforts), could be players on the move to help create the space they would need to retain players like Murray, Schultz and Galchenyuk. Or maybe more of them than could be expected at this point.
There are lots of moving pieces in play here, which makes an interesting bit to track, if the management of hockey is your thing. The drama on Pittsburgh’s roster this fall isn’t who will make or miss the roster cut, but how many on the roster end up playing out the season to shape how the team looks in the years to come.
Getting movement on Justin Faulk’s situation provides something of a guide marker for both Schultz and the Pens to potentially aim for down the line, but a lot of the decision could loom in the balance. The end result looks uncertain with several different possibilities and much of that will depend on what plays out in the upcoming months.