When NHL free agency begins on Sunday, former University of Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz will have his pick of destinations, from a list that reportedly includes the Edmonton Oilers, the Minnesota Wild, the New York Rangers, the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Vancouver Canucks.
While any of those teams will be glad to have him, there are a number of other folks around the NHL who aren't glad to see this situation unfolding.
Chief among these, of course, is the Anaheim Ducks, who drafted Schultz in the second round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and had every intention of signing him until he revealed that he had no intention of signing with them. However, others are also upset, not only on the Ducks' behalf, but about the loophole that's allowing Schultz to skip out on Anaheim.
In the expiring collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association, section C of Article 8.6 states the following:
"If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft."
In plain English, that means that if a team drafts a player from a junior hockey league who plays one or two more seasons of junior before starting college hockey, then that team only retains his rights for four years, and not until his graduation year, as is the case with players going directly into college.
Schultz isn't the first player to take advantage of this loophole. Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler used it to walk away from the Phoenix Coyotes, who selected him with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft. Less heralded players have used it as well, including Winnipeg Jets prospect Jason Gregoire and Philadelphia Flyers prospect Blake Kessel, both of whom were originally drafted by the New York Islanders, but decided to take advantage of their opportunity to go elsewhere.
Naturally, since the point of the draft is to give the NHL's "have nots" to catch up on their more successful rivals, there's a sense of injustice inherent in the situation.
"Why bother having a draft at all?" asks Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen. "Why ask NHL teams to invest millions of dollars chasing teenagers around rinks on this continent and overseas, believing their scouts can find the hidden gems better than their rivals?"
The reality, however, is that the Schultz situation, while unfortunate for Anaheim, is a tempest in a teapot. As junior hockey enthusiasts will gladly tell you, the major junior leagues in Canada - the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League - still develop the majority of NHL talent. College hockey is playing an increasingly large role in developing players for the NHL, but the majority of players on the college track are drafted immediately prior to their freshman year of college. Players like Schultz, Wheeler, Gregoire and Kessel are the exception, rather than the rule, and while it's unfortunate that Anaheim and the Islanders got burned, there's no injustice on a massive scale.
Still, the situation will give the NHL and the Players Association something to talk about when they negotiate a new CBA, and the best solution may be to allow teams in Anaheim's position to petition for a compensatory pick, even when the player in question was drafted after the first round.
Phoenix received a compensatory pick when it didn't sign Wheeler, as is standard with the first round. Clearly, the NHL can't hand out compensatory picks for every second-rounder who doesn't sign, but it's certainly worth investigating some sort of provision to ensure that teams that lose out as Anaheim did don't walk away empty-handed. In the meantime, the injustice is rare enough that it shouldn't make that much of a difference.
We'll understand if that's little consolation to the Ducks.