When I updated my NHL prospect rankings back in January , I didn't imagine how much the #10 ranked Anaheim Ducks prospect would be referenced in the month of April, May, and June. However, with the top defense prospect from Wisconsin likely heading for unrestricted free agency, the hype machine on young Justin Schultz has certainly been rolling lately. While I will do my best to keep expectations as level as possible, it is hard to think of a better college free agent in the last few years. While there was some hype for undrafted players like Tyler Bozak and Stephane Da Costa, Schultz's talent is on another level.
Should Anaheim lose him from their organization, it will be a major blow. While I am a fan of Anaheim's prospect system and the talent they've accumulatedand will remain so, should he sign with another teamSchultz in my opinion is Anaheim's clear number one prospect. While the Ducks' pipeline is mostly forward-heavy between top forward prospects Emerson Etem, Rickard Rakell, Kyle Palmieri, and William Karlsson, they do have another right defense option in top Finnish prospect Sami Vatanen, who may be able to step into an NHL job next year or be a first call up option. While he's not a prospect along the lines of Schultz, he's a pretty good one. Outside of those two though, there aren't any real significant defense prospects coming up for Anaheim.
The questions from everyone who cheers for other teams, though, are who is Justin Schultz, how good is he, and what can he do for me now? Here's what I have to say about him:
Schultz is a player defined by his puck possession skills which are easily high-end. He is a player who one NHL executive described as having "outstanding hockey sense and poise with the puck." Schultz can make special plays because of his high-end if not better vision and offensive instincts. If you want a defenseman who can control a power play, make great outlets, be creative with the puck, hit his passing targets through tight seams, and know when to join the rush, then Schultz is your guy.
I remember one play that really stood out to me this season that defined his hockey sense and patience. Schultz was near the left faceoff circle in the attacking zone when a teammate shot the puck from the blue line and the goalie kicked the puck to Schultz but quickly slid over to cover the net. In the split second when he got the rebound, just about any player would have shot it, but Schultz got the puck, held it for a second, and in such a short time window saw a backdoor pinching teammate flying down a wide open lane while the defending team converged to the net on what they thought would be a rebound shot, and passed it to him through several sticks which resulted in a wide open net and an easy goal.
His hockey sense translates to the defensive end as well, and while he's not as dynamic in that end, he's a smart positional player who uses his stick well to close gaps and separate pucks. I wouldn't classify Schultz as a crash-and-bang defenseman although he will rub guys off the puck. His strength has gotten better, although I wouldn't say he's at NHL level just quite yet, and I'd say he projects as a slightly below-average physical player. However, his fitness level is very high. Scouts I've talked to are very optimistic about his physical condition, describing him as having "very good stamina" and he's the kind of player who despite needing a little more strength is ready to make the NHL jump and is physically able to log a lot of minutes over a full pro season despite playing a somewhat limited schedule in college hockey.
His skating is the one area where I differentiate from scouts I've talked to. Some scouts have described him as a "tremendous skater" who moves at a legitimate high-end level, whereas I see him as an average NHL skater. While I don't see a glaring hole in any aspect, and I like his mobility and power he generates, I just don't see a wow-caliber tool.
All in all, Schultz projects as a potential #2 defenseman in the NHL. While he should be able to log tough minutes, I don't think he'll be your best shutdown defenseman. He'll be pretty good in that area, but he can be a team's best power play guy. Keep in mind, though, that he only turns 22 in the summer and defensemen tend to have much more risk/variance on their projections than forwards when making that jump to the NHL. I love his talent level and I think he certainly can reach his projection, but due to his position I wouldn't go say he's a "sure thing" to do so, nor would I say he'll peak in the next 1-2 years. The team that signs him could reasonably expect him to step onto their second pairing and be good on the power play from the get-go, which would be a great asset, with the ability to be even greater down the line.
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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