Was Justin Schultz Leaving the Anaheim Ducks Unfair?

Jonathan Willis
July 02 2012 08:35AM

It’s a scene that fans of the Edmonton Oilers know all too well: a general manager shaking his head at the steadfast refusal of a player to either join or stay with his team. This time, however, instead of Kevin Lowe or Steve Tambellini flabbergasted by the departure of a Mike Comrie or the refusal of a Dany Heatley to accept a trade, it was Anaheim Ducks G.M. Bob Murray who was frustrated.

Talking to the media after a busy day in free agency, Murray had the following to say last night:

I’m more confused than ever. I read everything of course. I’ve moved on. I’m confused because, if he had it in his mind that he wanted to play in Canada, then OK. I get that. I’m a Canadian too. But Eric Lindros when he didn’t want to play in Quebec, he went to his team that drafted him and said ‘No, I’m not going to play there.’ He allowed that team to make a move to get something for him. He told us numerous times he wanted to play with us. He needed to just tell us the truth.”

“This is unfair, not only for the organization, but it’s unfair for the Anaheim Duck fans. It’s unfair to other fans, the Phoenix Coyotes with Blake Wheeler. We’re all aware of other players coming along that are in this situation. It’s just wrong. I sure hope the NHL realizes they dropped the ball big time.”

It’s a point of view that isn’t hard to understand. The Oilers have seen an exodus of talent over the years – Pronger and the core of the 2006 team being the biggest example – and have seen other free agents either decline to consider Edmonton or walk away after an initial dalliance with the club.

Murray’s right about the loophole. When a team drafts a player they’re investing in him, and every team expects to receive a certain return on that investment if the player pans out. Justin Schultz is on the verge of starting to pay dividends – and now the Ducks will watch as another club reaps them.

On the other hand, Schultz had every right to do what he did. The fact that the loophole existed enabled him to attain the rookie maximum – something the Ducks almost certainly would not have offered, given the player’s draft position, if he had no other options. Professional hockey players live in a world where they make extreme amounts of money in exchange for playing a game, but on the other hand they also live in a world where they’re treated like commodities and moved halfway across the continent at the drop of the hat. Older free agents can exert a measure of control by negotiating no-move and no-trade clauses, but younger players have no such rights.

In Schultz’s case, he had a rare opportunity to dictate where he would play. The fact that he chose to exercise it has been seen by some as a clear character flaw, but it’s nothing of the sort – he simply made use of the options available to him. It’s the same thing every free agent who bypasses Edmonton chooses to do.

As for Murray, why didn’t he trade Schultz’s rights earlier in the game? When the player chose not to join the Ducks late in the 2011-12 season, it was a signal to the world that he was likely bound for free agency. That’s one of the reasons that this saga seemed to drag out so long – we’ve been fairly confident for months now that Schultz wasn’t going to join the Ducks. The Ducks had an early summer; they could have dealt Schultz’s rights to Edmonton or Ottawa or Calgary or Toronto back in May. Would anyone have blanched had Steve Tambellini swapped, say, a conditional second round pick and Brandon Davidson to Anaheim in exchange for that two-month negotiating window? That window, as we’ve seen in the past, has value to teams. Murray, though, didn’t make a deal in May. Supposedly he swung a deal with Toronto close to the draft, but the difference between a week and two months is sizeable.

The final point here is Murray’s claim that Schultz was dishonest with the club. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t; we’re really only getting one side of the story here, and it’s coming from a decidedly partial source.

I understand the frustration on Anaheim’s end of things. Any team would be bitter about what just happened. But at this point there’s simply not enough there to condemn Schultz for anything.

This week by Jonathan Willis

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.