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Schultz set to capitalize on free-agent status

Tuesday, 06.26.2012 / 10:55 AM / NHL Free Agency 2012

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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Schultz set to capitalize on free-agent status
Justin Schultz is a 21-year-old defenseman who has yet to play an NHL game, but there's no shortage of teams interested in the fact he's an unrestricted free agent after failing to sign with the Ducks.

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the two most talked about unrestricted free agents, but the player drawing the most attention from teams is a 21-year-old college kid who has yet to play a professional game.

Most fans might not know the name Justin Schultz, but you can be sure 30 NHL teams have the young man on speed dial.

A defenseman drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round in 2007, Schultz has blossomed into what some scouts regard as the best player not currently in the NHL.

"Overall, he's a player who is capable of controlling the pace and tempo of play when he has the puck. He's a player who wants to make a difference in the game. I think he has a chance to be a top-end defenseman." -- NHL Network analyst Craig Button on Justin Schultz

"His foundation of skating is excellent," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "He has speed, quickness and agility and is able to use his abilities to beat pressure defensively and to move into advantageous positions and be a threat offensively. He can speed up the game or slow it down and is very elusive. He has great awareness and poise with the puck and is able to make plays on the move or when stationary. He doesn't panic under pressure and is always aware and can adapt to changing circumstances instantly. He has a calming influence when he has the puck and while he can quickly strike, he doesn't force plays. He's an excellent passer and he has that panoramic vision that allows him to 'spread the ice,' so to speak, and to be able to attack opponents with multiple options. That makes it extremely difficult to shut him down. He has a very good shot, and along with his passing, it keeps goalies and defenders on their heels. He is unique in that he seems to play the game just ahead of the pressure and not in a hurried manner, but with tremendous confidence and an assuredness that is intimidating.

"Overall, he's a player who is capable of controlling the pace and tempo of play when he has the puck. He's a player who wants to make a difference in the game. I think he has a chance to be a top-end defenseman."

A scout from an Eastern Conference team told NHL.com, "If you were to walk into the rink and sit down to watch a game you would notice this guy because he always has the puck and he can make plays."

Schultz measured just over 6 feet tall and 163 pounds when the Ducks drafted him from the Westside Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League. After one more season in the BCHL, Schultz enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where his body grew to match his skills. During the 2011-12 season, his third with the Badgers, he was listed at 6-2 and 185 pounds.

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He led all NCAA defensemen in goals (16), points (44) and power-play goals (seven) last season, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award for the second straight season. He's also a two-time winner of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Defensive Player of the Year award, and a two-time member of the WCHA First All-Star Team.

"It's his vision, it's his composure with the puck, it's his puck skills,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told the Vancouver Province. "And the one thing that's just a gift is his shot. He has the innate ability to get that puck to the net to allow for rebounds, tip-ins and goals. He's got what we call a smart shot."

With nothing left to prove at the collegiate level, Schultz chose to withdraw from school following his junior year. When he couldn't reach a deal with the Ducks during a 30-day negotiating window, Schultz became an unrestricted free agent.

And that put a number of teams hot on his trail, among them the Detroit Red Wings.

"We've contacted his agents to express the Detroit Red Wings are interested in signing him to a contract," Detroit GM Ken Holland told MLive.com. "We think there's a tremendous opportunity in Detroit."

Schultz and Red Wings rookie defenseman Brendan Smith were teammates for one season at Wisconsin, which could give Detroit a bit of an advantage. Also, because the Wings have lost blueliners Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart this offseason, there's an NHL roster spot available for Schultz.

"We're prepared to give him the opportunity to be on our team," Holland said. "With the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart, there's a tremendous opportunity. We're trying to rebuild on the fly.

"We think he would be a good fit."

There are 29 other teams that likely feel the same way. Schultz is limited to a two-year, entry-level contract, so he's most likely looking for a team that can offer him a top-four defense spot.

Another team that reportedly has interest is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who also have the advantage of having another of Schultz's Wisconsin teammates on the roster -- Jake Gardiner. The New York Rangers also employ two former Badgers teammates -- center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

The Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames could be contenders due to their proximity to Schultz's home in West Kelowna, British Columbia. The Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks could be among the most interested suitors.

Though Schultz will need time to adjust to the NHL lifestyle on and off the ice, his ceiling will be worth whatever early bumps in the road might come up.

"Teams are going to love this guy in three or four years," one scout told The Hockey News.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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