The Edmonton Oilers may be a little more optimistic than normal heading into the 2014-15 season with some improvements made to the lineup, but before they can get too far ahead of themselves there is still some important work to be done this summer. The biggest task remaining for general manager Craig MacTavish is to get a new contract done with restricted free agent defenseman Justin Schultz.
Though it's getting late in the summer, it appears that a new deal should be worked out before the season starts. Days after Oilers' vice president of hockey operations Scott Howson expressed optimism the club would sign Schultz soon, the defenseman himself shared the latest in the talks while home in his native Kelowna, B.C.
Here's what Schultz told Regan Bartel, play-by-play man for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets:
I spoke to Oilers d-man Justin Schultz about contract talks with team. "It is pretty close. We should have something done pretty soon here".— Regan Bartel (@Reganrant) August 28, 2014
That sounds promising, obviously.
The deal with Schultz is a bit of a tricky one to pin down due to some unique circumstances. The 24-year-old defenseman joined the Oilers as an unrestricted free agent in 2012 after he decided against signing with the Anaheim Ducks, the team that had drafted him originally. Because there was such high interest in Schultz, he got the maximum allowed under the entry-level system.
Because he was under the ELC, Schultz's cap hit came in at $925,000, but after bonuses, he stood to make an average of $3.775 million as part of the two-year deal. Though Schultz may have played just below the lofty expectations his free-agent frenzy created, he's been a solid contributor for the Oilers and stands to play a bigger role as he progresses in his career.
Expecting Schultz to settle for anything below that $3.775 million would likely be a tough sell.
So what if there's no deal in time for training camp, which is about three weeks away?
Would Schultz go to camp without a deal? "I don't want too. It isn't something anyone wants to do. I don't c me going to camp without (1/2)— Regan Bartel (@Reganrant) August 28, 2014
"a deal. I will be at training camp ready to roll." Schultz is skating with other pro's in #Kelowna this afternoon.— Regan Bartel (@Reganrant) August 28, 2014
Both sides would probably prefer to avoid a holdout, which is really the only leverage Schultz has as a RFA. The Oilers have about $7.85 million remaining underneath the salary cap with Schultz the only real priority signing remaining. Young defenseman Philip Larsen also is owed a new deal as an RFA, but that won't be a bank-buster.
After the club just gave the more established and experienced Jeff Petry a one-year deal worth just north of $3 million earlier this summer, Schultz is most likely looking at a bridge-deal scenario. Over two years, he's shown flashes of high-end offense that made him a college star and one of the AHL's top players in the first half of 2012-13, but there's a lot left to prove.
Should he surge over the course of that bridge then the Oilers stand to have to pay a lot more, so this is indeed a delicate negotiation for both this current deal and any future contracts.
Schultz got top-pairing minutes last year with an average of 23:21 per game, but he struggled in his own end and the production wasn't necessarily high enough to offset that. In 122 career NHL games, Schultz has 60 points. He had 11 goals and 22 assists last season.
The Oilers look to have a better blue line next season with offseason additions like Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin. That depth should allow head coach Dallas Eakins more opportunities to pick his spots a little more carefully with Schultz and that could lead to a bigger year production wise for the young defenseman.
The good news is that the negotiations haven't seemed to get nasty despite the fact that there is no deal done yet. Schultz remains promising and very well could be an important piece for the Oilers for a long time. Getting past this tricky negotiation as smoothly as possible should be a priority.