While the Penguins made good strides in addressing their forward depth in the offseason, they opted for a "wait-and-see" mindset when it came to their defense. The approach would ultimately get head coach Mike Johnston fired as he overcompensated for his weak defense by neutering the offense to help prop up the team in their own end. The team would ultimately dump anchor Rob Scuderi off on the Blackhawks for Trevor Daley, and they would continue to look for ways to address their defense depth. While Daley has raised concerns about his defensive ability over the years, he's been a great fit for what Mike Sullivan has asked his defensemen to do. And with Edmonton giving up on Justin Schultz in his 4th year in the league, GM Jim Rutherford was a willing buyer and traded a 3rd round pick for the chance to add another mobile, offensively-talented defenseman that Sullivan could attempt to reclaim.
Through 13 games with his new team, Schultz has posted 1 goal and 3 assists while playing a sheltered 14:19 per game, and he's displaying some of the offensive talents that made him such a coveted player coming out of the University of Wisconsin. While the sample size is small, Schultz has an on-ice GF% of 83.3% at 5-on-5 and a 1.2 pts/60, but while he has a score-adjusted 53.9 CF%, the team has an absurd 61.6 SACF% over the past 13 games with him off the ice. The issue the Penguins have in front of them is wading through the noise of the small sample size and figuring out what they should be putting stock in. How much of Schultz's track record in Edmonton was based on the environment, and how much falls on the player?
The Penguins are having Schultz work with Sergei Gonchar on shoring up his defensive game, but clearly they don't trust him enough yet to take on a larger workload. Or possibly he's just the most logical candidate for giving up minutes to the superhuman that Kris Letang has been recently, logging huge minutes while also playing better than he has in his career. Either way, they know that the process with Gonchar is not going to be a quick one, and they knew that before making the deal. Schultz has shown good vision, passing, and offensive instincts. The way he froze the defense and goalie on Phil Kessel's first goal yesterday was a play not many in the league could make.
So, the team is basically in the same position they were when they made the trade: see how he responds out of the toxic environment in Edmonton and hope they can help fix his most glaring defensive lapses. He's a restricted free agent at the season's end, so they'll need to put new money on the table to continue working on his game once the Pens season has finished. And unlike typical deals with RFAs, Schultz has an unusual amount of leverage, and that's because of the current cap hit he received while with the Oilers.
In order to maintain their right to match an offer sheet or receive compensation, the Penguins need to tender Schultz a qualifying offer. Based on the CBA, that Pittsburgh qualifying offer would need to have a $3.9 million AAV. At this point in his career, Schultz clearly wouldn't be able to get that sum on the open market, and the Pens will likely try to negotiate a cheaper price. Not to mention, with just shy of $69 million committed to 19 players for next season assuming the trio of young players they extended earlier in the year are all on the NHL roster, $3.9 million would push them over this year's upper limit of $71.4 million, and there might not be much more cap space next year with the questions surrounding the Canadian dollar. They have another option, which would be to take Schultz to arbitration, but it's a contentious process that essentially boils down to a team detailing what they think is wrong with a player, and given that Scultz would be guaranteed a minimum $3.315 million award it wouldn't make much sense for Pittsburgh to pursue this route.
The Penguins will pursue negotiating a cheaper extension, but this is where Schultz has leverage he can use, and he's shown the willingness to do so before. Mike Sullivan's system is a good fit for Schultz, and Pittsburgh would help him rehab his game and image around the league and position himself nicely for his next contract. What Schultz has the power to do is refuse to sign. Pittsburgh would need to pay him $3.9 million or Schultz would have the benefit of then being able to negotiate with all 30 teams, not just the Penguins. There's not much risk to going this route if Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh as he would still have the ability to return to the Pens, though this would run the risk of Pittsburgh making another signing on the blueline and essentially shutting him out of a roster spot.
Given the salary dynamics present, negotiating Justin Schultz's next contract will be more difficult than the typical RFA deal. With how badly things ended the last time he used his leverage to enter unrestricted free agency, hopefully Schultz will have learned his lesson and recognize the good situation he has managed to find himself in. But if he wants to force the issue and control his free agency options, he can refuse to sign any extension before the end of the season and give the Penguins two options: pay him $3.9 million or watch him hit the open market. The Penguins took a gamble at the trade deadline that they could fix Schultz's issues and make him a productive part of their blueline - keeping him in Pittsburgh is a big part of making that gamble pay off.