I'm sure everyone is tired of thinking about Justin Schultz, but he's the most important thing happening in our organization right now. The closer he gets to walking, the more we hear about what an amazing player he is and how he's going to make some other team really happy. A lot is going on in this saga, Chuck Schwartz over at Bucky's 5th Quarter had an interesting tidbit about how Anaheim might be preparing tampering charges. A month ago, Ryan Fulford of The Hockey Writers wrote this fun reminder that Anaheim is in a position to get absolutely nothing when Schultz leaves. It's bad times at the Ponda Center.
This post isn't about any of those things.
We all know Scultz is awesome. We all know he'd be perfect for the Ducks right now, and we all know how disastrous it will be if/when he leaves. When I read Jen's update, I noticed the link she posted to my old thoughts when I first learned of this situation. I made the argument that if Schultz got away, it should be the last mistake Bob Murray is allowed to make as our General Manager. As I reread some of the comments I was struck by the argument that Murray shouldn't be expected to overcome the many loopholes of the CBA.
Alright, keep up kids, this is where it gets complicated. When I was an undergrad, I read an article by Karl Marx that had a simple purpose, to refute the sentiment surrounding the divinity of capitalism. Marx's argument was simple: Capitalism didn't emerge randomly as some brilliant gift of economics. There was a series of decisions and events that made its emergence possible. In other words, Marx argues that nothing just randomly happens. Rather, there are historical conditions that create an optimal situation for a given outcome. This post is going to cover the series of events that has created the optimal conditions for Schultz to walk away, at least as far as I see it. This wasn't some random situation that Murray suddenly encountered. This is a path that he started down years ago, and this post will hopefully prove that. [Ed. Note: Daniel brings first Marxist example to AC.]
All stories have a beginning and I think this one begins with Murray's first major transaction as the Ducks' GM.
The Chris Kunitz Trade: The situation surrounding the Kunitz trade was pretty simple. The Ducks had two Norris/All-Star/Future Hall of Fame defensemen that they couldn't afford to keep. Chris Pronger was going to be moved and it was just a question of who the Ducks would get to replace him. The team was shifting to becoming Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry's as they had taken up residency on the top line. Kunitz wasn't really clicking with the Twins, and he certainly wasn't the type to anchor his own second line. He was expendable. So, the Ducks swapped him for Ryan Whitney, who had become a surplus player in Pittsburgh. Murray put an Eric Tangradi bow on Kunitz and sent him over. This gave the Ducks a possible top-4 replacement for Pronger and made him expendable, but that's not the only thing that happened.
James Wisniewski: There were bit parts involved, but the Ducks got James Wisniewski for Samuel Pahlsson. Writing that hurt a little. The Ducks learned, as the Blackhawks already knew, that Wiz was made of gingerbread. He was also a decent puck mover who had a very good point shot and played with a physical, or more accurately reckless, edge. He was another younger defender with top-4 potential. Unfortunately, he also had a penchant for misreading plays and getting caught out of position. Wisniewski was supposed to be the second piece of the Ducks major defense rebuild...you know, the one that we had to scrap and start all over again.
Francois Beauchemin Walks/Bring on the Boyntons: This is where everything starts to come together. Beauchemin was coming off major knee surgery but recovered to play well in the playoffs. His past performances had Murray convinced he couldn't afford him when he went UFA. In fact, Murray was so convinced, he never called Beauchemin's agent. You've gotta love a GM who doesn't even step to the table, right? I digress.
Murray had just moved Pronger, and he had Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz in the cupboard from the 2008 draft. As a result, he lets Beauchemin walk without a phone call, and he keeps Wisniewski and Whitney. Personally, I think Wisniewski drove Niedermayer to an early retirement, but that's just me. He has now broken up his top defensive pairing, Niedermayer and Beauchemin, and he has traded Pronger at the 2009 draft. The Ducks lose 2 of their top 3 defenders in the summer of 2009. He replaces them with Whitney, Wisniewski, Nick Boynton and Steve Eminger...I'm crying real tears right now.
This summer crippled the Ducks' D. We are still recuperating from this summer. There's been a steady string of "value" defenseman. But, any security has been short lived. On a sidenote: Arthur once told me that it's hard to acknowledge a GM who doesn't go to bat for "his" guy. Murray insisted on getting Beauchemin in the Federov trade, and then refused to pony up the dough for the guy he insisted the Ducks get. This makes me think Murray is the John Kerry of NHL GMs.
Scott Niedermayer Retires: Beauchemin and Pronger leaving created a void that Scotty just couldn't fill by himself and that no one was helping him fill. Whitney was a failure of an acquisition, and he would be replaced with Lubomir Visnovsky who gave us one great year and one average one. Wisnewski turned Scotty gray. Seriously, I saw Niedermayer age every time Wisniewski pinched and missed the puck and the man. But the real problem with Scotty retiring was that it left him without that quality role model on the back end, as well as a gaping hole on the ice. Maybe Murray thought Scotty would play forever, like Teemu Selanne. If that was the case, then there's a little understanding as to why he let Beauchy walk. Niedermayer is the perfect role model for an up and coming defenseman. With his retirement, Murray needed someone who could do that. All of the sudden he was in desperate need of a guy like Beauchemin *face palm*.
Recap: So far, we've been monitoring the Ducks defense in the years since they drafted Gardiner and Schultz who were going to be a great future pairing for Anaheim. The Ducks defense has, so far, decayed. There's promise on the horizon, but only in the cupboard. Whitney was moved for Visnovsky, who played better here, but offered the same tool set. It's the difference between a $5 quick pick that wins and one that doesn't. At this point, this doesn't mean a lot to Schultz. It's pretty much business as usual for any NHL prospect. However, what it means for the Ducks is that their Stanley Cup core has deteriorated and they are slipping into mediocrity. When that happens, GMs make trades to right the ship. When GMs make trades to right ships, prospects get moved. Whenever there's a lot of movement going on and a general inability to secure a lineup, which the Ducks have been experiencing, it doesn't give the best impression of the front office. Let's keep going and check some dates.
Schultz Returns to Wisconsin/Murray Trades Gardiner: At the end of the 2010-11 season, Schultz decided to return to Wisconsin for his third year...sort of. According to this piece from USCHO.com, Schultz actually decided he'd return for his third season around Christmas of 2010. This raises an important question: Did Schultz tell the Ducks at Christmas that he wouldn't be signing on for the 2011-2012 season? If he did, then the Ducks traded Gardiner knowing that Schultz wasn't going to sign over the summer, or they hoped they'd be able to sign him over the summer, despite him saying the opposite.
This of course begs the next question: At what point did Murray and his staff become aware of the loophole that would set Schultz free. I have to assume that he knew about it before he traded Gardiner. If he didn't, he should be fired for incompetence. If he did, then he just took a very hefty gamble, like when the South Park parents let it ride at the roulette table. When Gardiner was moved, the argument in support of the trade was that we kept the better prospect in Schultz. The other side of that argument is that Gardiner was our insurance against Schultz walking away. Not in that he was meant to get Schultz to stay, but Gardiner offered us a prospect who could be a top-4 defender in case we couldn't sign Schultz and he walked. So, Murray trades Gardiner for Beauchemin, probably knowing that Schultz was going to go back to school, and therefore would have a decent chance of going UFA this summer. Yeah...I don't know how to make that sound like a good idea.
The argument will still be made that the Ducks needed a top-4 defender, so Murray gets fleeced in the Beauchemin trade, giving up a top-4 defender and a top line winger for a top-4 defender. Of course, if Schultz signs in Toronto you can add a potential top pair defender to that trade. As much as I love Beauchemin, and I love me some Beauchemin, that's a price I would NEVER pay. Moreover, Beauchemin only yielded mixed results. One must ask if our two best blue line prospects were worth a playoff series loss in his season and a half of work.
That brings us to the present. Since he's been drafted, Schultz has watched our defense deteriorate, and he's watched his former partner be shipped off to cover those holes. It's easy to say it's a business and that Schultz should just play for the team that drafted him. Unfortunately, that's an overly simplified view of the situation. Schultz's decision on whether or not to stay won't just be a decision about his future. It will be an assessment of our organization. If Schultz doesn't want to be a part of this defense, it cannot be ignored that this is a defense of Murray's creation. The CBA loophole has simply opened a door. It will be up to Schultz to walk through it. Ultimately, Ducks fans will have to decide if the actions of their general manager gave Schultz a firm push through that door.