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Some RFAs Who Could Become UFAs

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Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Gregor
8 months ago
How many RFAs won’t receive qualifying offers before the end-of-the-month deadline? Gary Bettman said last week he expects the cap to increase by only $1 million, which is similar to the past three summers, and that led to teams being leery of offering qualifying offers to players with arbitration rights who could command a big raise in arbitration.
The past few seasons we’ve seen many young players become unrestricted free agents due to not receiving qualifying offers, and they’ve become excellent value contracts for the team who signed them.
Carter Verhaeghe has been the best value contract in the NHL the past three seasons. After winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2020, the Lightning didn’t qualify him. He’d scored 9-4-13 in 52 games, but they had limited cap space and lots of depth and cut him loose. Florida signed him to a two-year deal with a $1m AAV. He produced 18-18-36 in 43 games in the pandemic-shortened 2021 season and signed a three-year extension on July 28th, 2021 with a $4.167 AAV.
He scored 24 goals and 55 points in the final year of his $1m deal and this past season, in the first year of his new $4.16m deal, he produced 42 goals and 73 points. He’s chipped in 13 goals and 29 points in 30 playoff games the past two seasons. He’s been an excellent signing.
The trend of RFAs not being qualified and signing solid deals with other teams continued last summers.

RULES FOR ARBITRATION…

The deadline to file for arbitration is July 5th.
If a player files for arbitration the team can opt for a one or two-year deal. In the rare case a team files for arbitration then the player gets to pick the term.
The team and player have to accept the arbitrator’s decision, except if it comes in above $4.54m, then the team has the option to walk away, and the player becomes a UFA. That is very rare, but it has happened. The two recent ones I remember are Boston walking away from David Tanabe in 2006 and the Rangers walked away from Nikolai Zherdev in 2009.

RFAs WHO BECAME UFAs

Last summer quite a few NHL players were not offered qualifying offers.
Washington didn’t qualify goaltender Ilya Samsonov and he signed a one-year deal worth $1.8m with Toronto. He’d made $2m the previous season. He went 27-10-5 for the Leafs with a sparking .919sv%. He’s an RFA again this summer, but I’d be surprised if Toronto didn’t qualify him.
Seattle opted not to qualify Daniel Sprong despite him only having a $725K cap hit. No other team signed him, and he eventually re-signed in Seattle for one year at $750K on October 3rd. He then produced a ridiculous 21 goals and 46 points in 66 games.
He was often on their fourth line, but the guy can score. Seattle needed scoring throughout their lineup to compete, and they got it. Among their 13 most used forwards Sprong was 11th in TOI/game at 11:25. He was tied for second on the team with six PP goals and was tied for fourth with 15 EVG.
He is a RFA again this year, and after scoring 21 goals he’d get a big raise from an arbitrator. Will Seattle qualify him? If they do, they will wisely file for arbitration and could easily get an award upwards of $3.3m. If not, he’d could be a really good UFA signing. He’s not a typical bottom-six forward because he doesn’t PK and isn’t overly physical, but he can score. In the past three seasons he has 48 goals in 171 games.
He has as many goals as Blake Coleman, Conor Garland, Connor Sheary and Lawson Crouse, who’ve played 218, 207, 206 and 193 games respectively. He has more goals than Alexis Lafreniere, Ivan Barbashev, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Mathew Barzal, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Anthony Beauvillier, JT Compher, Andrew Copp and many others.
Sprong can finish, and for a team lacking in natural finishers, the Kraken have a tough decision to make, unless they sign him to a contract before the end of the month.
He has warts to his game, but he does the hardest thing in hockey — score goals — quite well.
Others like Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Brendan Lemieux, Ryan Donato, Brett Howden (re-signed with Vegas quite quickly), Sonny Milano, Sam Steel, Christian Fischer, Matthew Highmore, Ryan Donato, Evgeny Svecnhikov and a few more were not qualified.
Not all of them had success with their new team, but many produced good value for their cap hit.

BARGAIN BIN SHOPPING…

If Bettman’s statement becomes truth, and the cap only rises $1m, many competitive teams will need to find players who can produce with lower cap hits. And some teams could shy away from qualifying a player due to the risk of a higher arbitration settlement.
There will be some RFAs who will become UFAs this summer. These three are easy: Goalie Mackenzie Blackwood needs to be qualified at $4.125 (that won’t happen), similar to Carolina’s Jesse Puljujarvi ($3m), and Montreal’s Denis Gurianov ($2.9m). Gurianov and Puljujarvi produced 17 and 16 points respectively and, if they are signed, it will be around $800K-$1m.
Some GMs will have to make tough decisions on other players.
Ross Colton in Tampa Bay. He only needs to be qualified at $1.25m, but he scored 16-16-32 last year and 22-17-39 the year before. He would get over $3.5m in arbitration. The Lightning don’t have the cap space to keep him. I’m sure they’d prefer to trade his rights at the draft, and teams will be interested. Could he become the next Verhaeghe?
Maxime Comtois in Anaheim. He needs to be qualified at $2.55m. He just finished a two-year deal with a $2.037m AAV, and he produced 6-10-16 and 9-10-19 and played 52 and 64 games each year. He’s struggled to stay healthy, but after scoring 16-17-33 in the shortened 2021 season the Ducks were hoping for more than 15 total goals the past two seasons. They have loads of cap space, so they could qualify him, and I’m sure he gladly take $2.55m for one year, but it depends if Pat Verbeek believes he can bounce back and be closer to the player they saw in 2021.
Ethan Bear in Vancouver. He needs to be qualified at $2.2m. Vancouver already has Tyler Myers ($6m), Filip Hronek ($4.4m) and Tucker Poolman ($2.5m) signed on the right side. They liked how Bear played, but acquiring Hronek late in the season, means Bear would be in their third pair. Poolman’s health is still a concern. He only played three games last season as he dealt with migraine issues, so I think they’d want Bear, but with limited cap space his AAV will be the concern.
Trent Frederic in Boston. He had a solid season scoring 17 goals and 31 points. He’s a physical, robust forward with some skill. He needs to be qualified at $1.15m. The Bruins love him, but they have cap issues, and he could command over $3m from an arbitrator. I’d be surprised if they didn’t qualify him, because of his unique skillset, but they need to shed salary even before re-signing him, so it will be interesting to see path they choose. He’s in a great spot, because if he became a UFA, he’d be highly sought-after.
Tyson Jost in Buffalo: He needs to be qualified at $2.25m. The 10th overall pick in 2016 scored seven goals and 22 points in 59 games last season with the Sabres after being acquired from Minnesota. His numbers prorate to 30 points, which is decent, but the Sabres already have eight forwards at $2.5m for next season. And they have three young forwards in Jack Quinn, Peyton Krebs and John-Jason Peterka on the books. Not qualifying Jost makes sense.
Christian Fischer in Arizona. They didn’t qualify him last year, when he needed to be qualified at $1.125m, and he’d only scored 5-5-10. They re-signed him on July 11th, to the exact same AAV, so he needs to be qualified at that total again, but he produced 13-14-27 in 2023, so he’d receive a much higher settlement from an arbitrator. They have loads of cap space, so they should qualify him, but with Arizona you never know. He’ had 15, 13 and 11 goals seasons in his career, but also had three years with six, five and three.
Denis Malgin in Colorado. He needs to be qualified at $825K, and he had a solid campaign scoring 13-8-21 in 65 games split between Toronto and Colorado. In his 42 games in Colorado, he scored 11-6-17, which is very good. The Avs need depth scorers who can produce, especially with Gabriel Landeskog not scheduled to play again next season. They could qualify him and not worry too much about the potential increase via an arbitrator, or Avs management might decide they’d rather let him walk, and they just re-sign him after when the risk of an arbitration ruling is gone. We saw a few teams do that last summer.
Klim Kostin in Edmonton. Kostin needs to be qualified at $825K. He scored 11 goals and 21 points in 57 games. He also drew quite a few penalties and added a physical component the Oilers needed. He has a great shot. He could get $1.5-$1.8m from an arbitrator, and Edmonton needs to decide if that is a concern. Kostin finally found some traction in Edmonton, after struggling to become a regular in St. Louis. He chipped with three goals in 12 playoff games, and he showed a willingness to block shots at will. Even with the potential risk of an arbitrator ruling, I’d qualify him if I was the Oilers. He has an elite shot. He could fill in the top-six if injuries occur here and there, and he’s comfortable in the bottom six. The main question for Ken Holland will be how his head coach Jay Woodcroft views him. Kostin didn’t play many minutes in the playoffs. The GM and coach need to be on the same page in determining if a $1.5m AAV is going to be good value based on minutes played.
The Oilers, like many other cap-strapped teams, will be looking for players who can provide good production with a low AAV. We will look at some UFA options in the next few weeks, but a few of the younger RFA options who aren’t qualified could be enticing.

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