Oilers GM Craig MacTavish described defenseman Justin Schultz as "a core player" with "Norris Trophy potential."
But that doesn't mean MacTavish wanted to pay him like one.
Edmonton pumped up the praise in lieu of cash after coming to terms on a one-year, $3.675 million deal with the promising/frustrating blueliner.
It's one of those "show-me" bridge contracts that makes sense for both sides. Schultz settles for something less than the $3.775 million he earned with bonuses on his entry-level contract, but the money is guaranteed. And coming off a disappointing season during which the power play specialist scored 11 goals but only 33 points, he's better served waiting to negotiate a longer-term deal until he has a bit more leverage—something he hopes to earn by improving his all-around game this season.
That'll take some work. For what it's worth, Schultz's Corsi rating was a miserable 42.9% last season, primarily because he still struggles with his defensive reads. It's tough for a guy to make the magic happen when he spends most of his time chasing the puck.
As for the Oilers, they have Schultz wrapped up ahead of camp, they have kept his cap hit reasonable and, recognizing his deficiencies, they have avoided making a serious commitment until they have a better idea of what kind of player the former Wisconsin Badger will be.
That's a much more conservative approach than the team employed when signing other recent RFAs like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and it's one that makes a lot of sense here. It could cost Edmonton in the long run—offensive defensemen aren't getting any cheaper—but with several promising blueliners in the system (Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and William Lagesson, among others), the Oilers don't want to overcommit to a player who might not have a place at the table.
That's not to say that Schultz won't develop into a top pairing, puck-moving possession demon, but it's equally likely that he will end up as a power-play specialist who skates with the third pair at even strength. That type of player is a big risk at big money.
Look around the league and you'll see a couple of unsigned players—the Predators' Ryan Ellis and the Bruins' Torey Krug—who fill that role. You can bet that neither of those restricted free agents will land a deal anywhere near what Schultz just got.
There are several factors at play here, but one of them is potential. We don't know yet if the high expectations are reflective of the hype that surrounded Schultz when he entered the league as an unrestricted free agent or a fair assessment of the player he can be. At this point, there was no reason for Edmonton to bet heavily either way.