Like I'm sure most of you were, I was ecstatic about Justin Schultz choosing Edmonton over every other team in the league. Finally a highly touted free agent wanted to come to Edmonton, and it was likely the first time for this since Pronger **spits**. That makes this all the more harder to admit but the fact is that the best thing the Oilers got when they signed Justin Schultz was an asset, trade bait.
Justin Schultz is an absolute dominate offensive force from the back end. He could easily become the highest scoring defenseman in the NHL on a consistent basis. The problem is he is severely lacking in his positions name sake, defence. The way Schultz plays the game he may be better suited for to play the wing than defense.
Don't get me wrong, to point this season I've seen Schultz eliminate countless potential breakaways with out taking a penalty simply by out skating opposing forwards and getting between them and the puck. But as good as his offensive awareness and skating is, he's possibly one of the worst defensemen in the league positionally.
While I'm sure over the course of his career he'll learn this mind set, but the fact of the matter is that we don't have time for him to develop this skill and I think we should all have a clear idea at this point that he will never learn it to the point of being that Elite Defender this team needs. Right now Justin Schultz is 23, other defenseman of this age include Alex Pietrangelo, Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and PK Subban bookending them at age 22 and 24 respectively. I simply don't see Schultz developing into these type of players defensively in the next 3 to 4 years never mind next season. However, in the limited sample size we've seen I do believe that Darnell Nurse could reach this level.
The problem here is that these guys are rare and thus worth their weight in gold (actually more, Alex Pietrangelo is listed at 93 kg and with the current price of gold that'd come out to just above $4MM and the Blues are paying him $5MM/yr and his value on the trade market would be higher than that). So while it appears that attaining a player of this caliber is out of the question, there are several players that could be in that next tier of defensemen that may not be elite, but are still very good options to have in the number one.
This is where my comment on Schultz being an asset comes in, and like all assets Schultz' value is at risk of depleting. This year is a contract year for Schultz and while the signing him to a 'Bridge Deal' this offseason is an option, if the Oilers were to offer Schultz 'The Contract' ($6MM/year for life) then his value will likely plummet as no team will want that contract for a defensive liability on the blue line. I think the best option is to attempt to trade him for an upgrade at defense this season and allow the team he's going to determine what they would like to pay him.
I've spent sometime over the past week attempting to come up with a method of evaluating defensemen and while I'm certainly no expert in advanced stats I feel like I fiddled enough to come up with a decent list of top end defenders. I have reasonable confidence in this list on the basis of the top 3 names are Erik Karlsson, Zdeno Chara and Drew Doughty but feel free to let me know if you think I'm full crap.
My process to create this list was to start with the defenders that averaged over 20 minutes per game last season, on the premise that if a defender is good, the coach will realize it somewhere in the season and would go to him more and more. I included a bunch of other things like power play and penalty kill time per game with the thought that coaches will tend to use their better defenders at important points of the game and I combined the special teams time thinking the more versatile defenders will play in both situations as well as the assists per game thinking that many goals off the rush would originate from a good puck mover. These two stats came out to be relatively useless but I thought I'd include them anyways.
At this point I looked into the advanced stats and added up a players Corsi and Quality of Competition Corsi on the line of thought that good defenders would face tougher competition and better defenders would out perform them, and thus the best ones would have the highest value, for reference I called this Stat1. The final thing I looked at was the Percent Zone Starts/Finishes and took the difference of them, again the idea being that the better defenders would finish more shifts in the opposing zone than they started. Upon combining the % Zone Difference with Stat1 I came to Stat2. My original thought was to get a final combined stat by adding Stat2 to the amount of time spent on Special Teams but this wound up being relatively irrelevant and changed the list only a little.
What I came out with was a list of players that had some of the Elite Defenders in the league near the top with a few other players mixed in with them. The best players that I found that I would not consider elite were, Dennis Seidenberg, Dan Boyle, Andy Greene, Ryan McDonagh and Lubomir Visnovsky. While these guys may not be elite they are pretty damn good and may upgrade the Oilers defense for the next few years until Darnell Nurse and/or Oscar Klefbom are ready to take charge. I think a player like Jeff Petry has shown he is well within his comfort zone playing on the top pairing and could really excel with any of these guys, add in Ference and Smid to round out the Top 4 and I think we're in a better spot.
My final point on this would be we have guys like Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and possibly even Martin Marincin looking to crack an NHL roster spot and with the performance of Petry and Ference and Smid both under contract, somethings gotta give and Justin Schultz could net us the best return.