With just about a week to go until the NHL free agency window opens, rumors are running rampant about where the top stars will play.
The bulk of the attention is not-so-surprisingly revolving around All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter and New Jersey Devils captain Zack Parise.
In what is an unusual year, however, the next most promising target available to NHL teams has never played in a National Hockey League game.
That player is the 21-year-old University of Wisconsin defensive stand out, Justin Schultz.
Schultz was drafted 43rd overall in 2008 (just 26 spots behind his University of Wisconsin teammate and current Maple Leafs blue liner, Jake Gardiner) by the Anaheim Ducks. However, Schultz has never signed with the team and is now free to negotiate with the club of his choosing.
While Schultz cannot sign a contract until July 1, 2012, you can be sure a number of teams are already speaking with the blue-chip prospect.
Yahoo reports that say come July 1st, just about every team in the NHL will be in hot pursuit of the young defenseman's services.
Whether Schultz will opt to play for a team where he can maximize his bonus opportunities or elects to join a team that possesses former University of Wisconsin teammates (both the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs would fit the bill in this regard) remains to be seen.
As it stands, Stan Fischler of MSG sports network in New York, believes Schultz will dawn the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs once free agency begins, as evidenced by the following tweet:
The future of Justin Schultz could have #Toronto as his next stop. That's my call.
— Stan Fischler (@StanFischler) June 24, 2012
Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs should hope that Mr. Fischler's prediction comes to fruition.
After just dealing Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers yesterday for power-forward James van Riemsdyk, Toronto opened a roster spot on defense that Justin Schultz would slot into perfectly.
Yes, Toronto may have an abundance of defenders as it stands, but Leafs fans need to remember that quality always trumps quantity, and it could turn out that Schultz is better than all but one or two of the Leafs current defensemen.
What makes this deal even more enticing is that Schultz's cap hit would come in at only $200,000 more than Luke Schenn's. That is important seeing as van Riemsdyk's cap hit totals over $4 million, which makes it hard for Toronto to be competitive in the Zach Parise or Ryan Suter sweepstakes.
That affordability (if such a thing exists for a player who's never played in the NHL), even led one NHL executive to say the following in the aforementioned Yahoo report:
“This one is going to be just as big as the (Zach) Parise and (Ryan) Suter,” an NHL executive said, “because of the economics of it.”
If Brian Burke is serious about building this team into a contender from the blue paint outwards, he still has a long way to go before October rolls around.
Adding Schultz next week would be another step in the right direction.
Schultz may not be ready to completely dominate the NHL just yet, but in a year or two, there is no telling just how good the Kelowna, BC native can be.
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