The deadline for the NHL’s qualifying offer has created an enticing secondary market for mining impact producers. In fact, this year’s crop of unqualified restricted free agents is more talented than ever before.
In order to retain the rights to its RFAs, a club had to make the player a qualifying offer equal to the base salary of their last contract before 5 p.m. ET Monday. Many teams would actually prefer to keep some of their unprocured RFAs, but these players are often eligible for arbitration. If the player requests arbitration, the team risks an unfavorable salary arrangement, one that a club cannot legally walk away from unless the cap hit is $4,538,958 or higher. In other words, once a team has qualified for an RFA, there is no certainty about costs and there is no turning back once the player proceeds to arbitration. That obviously poses a risk for clubs that are pushed against the salary ceiling.
Any RFA that has not received an eligible bid will be eligible to become a UFA on July 13. With that in mind, here are 10 of the most intriguing unlisted free agents, plus honorable mentions.
Since arriving in Chicago, Dylan Strome has scored 154 points in 225 games, a clip of 56 points per 82 games. It was a big surprise then that he didn’t qualify for his modest $3.6 million fee as the Blackhawks swim in space. Even if he didn’t consider the club’s long-term plans, it would have been better for Chicago to get a short-term deal and trade him on the deadline rather than let him run for nothing.
Alas, here we are.
Strome is a very useful mid-six center that should appeal to teams that need help in the center. Since the 2019-20 campaign, Strome has scored 1.92 points per hour at five-on-five, which is a bona fide top six percentage.
However, there are yellow flags to keep in mind. First, Strome’s skating is still slow, which makes him a questionable two-way player. Therefore, it must be used carefully and strategically to succeed. The Blackhawks knew this because they gave Strome a good dose of offensive zone starts, mostly playing him against the bottom six and fielding Patrick Kane on his wing for a long time.
The fit is key: Strome makes a lot of sense for a team that needs an offensively gifted mid-six on a sheltered scoreline.
Kubalik is a one-dimensional goalscorer, but if you can fill the net consistently, clubs can often overlook those shortcomings. The 26-year-old Czech left winger has scored 62 goals in 202 NHL career games, which translates to a pace of 25 goals per 82 games.
Unfortunately, his results are going in the wrong direction. Kubalik’s score for goals and points has declined in successive seasons and his game-driving profile has also declined. An explanatory factor is the lack of help around him. Jonathan Toews, Kubalik’s most frequent center man, was still a top six pivot in 2019-20 as Kubalik scored 30 goals as a rookie, and the Chicago captain just isn’t the same player he once was. Kubalik can’t control a line on his own, so it’s not surprising that his production has dropped without a top-notch center to boost play for his line.
Kubalik may not have the 30-goal advantage he flashed in 2019-20 as he shot an unsustainably high 19.1 per cent that year. But he still offers legitimate 20-25 goals upside down in a mid-six role.
Heinen was not offered a QO by the Anaheim Ducks last season; now he’s in the same situation with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In this case, he was not offered because he played so well that there was a high risk of an expensive arbitration ruling, one that the Penguins may not have been able to afford given their precarious cap situation. He was at good, in other words, and priced itself out of Pittsburgh.
Heinen was a crucial source of secondary scoring with 18 goals and 33 points in 76 games. Fifteen of those goals were five-on-five, putting him in second place at the club with Sidney Crosby. That kind of lofty equal strength goals is clearly an outlier, but we’re still talking about a player who scored at a clip of 36 points per 82 game during his NHL career.
In addition to his secondary scoring, Heinen was a strong, two-way rider who tipped the ice in Pittsburgh’s favor with a very positive shot, scoring opportunity and goal shares.
Teams looking for a versatile, scoring and reliable striker in the bottom six should think carefully about Heinen.
This one is quite surprising. Milano is a creative, gifted playmaker who eventually established himself with a solid campaign, scoring 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games alongside Trevor Zegras. The 26-year-old’s combination of speed and skill allows him to consistently create controlled zone entrances and set up his linemates for dangerous scoring opportunities.
Milano’s work away from the puck isn’t perfect, but a look under the hood reveals that his two-way profile was no problem at all. The Ducks had a strong 52 percent share of shots and scoring opportunities in his five-on-five minutes last season.
Speed and skill are increasingly important in the modern game. In Milan, teams can bid on a cheap player who can deliver both.
After a frustrating 2020/21 campaign in which he missed all but three games with an injury, Ondřej Kaše delivered a nice setback last season. The 26-year-old right winger is establishing himself as a valuable mid-six Swiss Army Knife player – he can score (14 goals and 27 points in 50 games), kill penalties and provide transitional assistance with his successful track record of generating of zone entries.
Health remains the biggest risk with Kaše. He has gone through the wringer with multiple head injuries and has only been eligible for 60+ games in a season once in his career. The talent is there, but how much will a team commit with the knowledge of the health problems?
Injuries and inconsistency undermined Samsonov’s time with the Capitals, who finally decided it was time to move on.
Samsonov doesn’t have a great track record in the NHL, having only achieved a 0.903 service percentage in 94 games in his career. That said, he’s big, athletic, comes with a good pedigree as the number 22 roster in 2015 and is still quite young at 25. Samsonov can look to a fellow UFA like Jack Campbell as a proof of concept for how an acclaimed goaltending prospect who has lost his way can get his career back on track.
Samsonov could be an interesting upside bet as No. 2, especially given the number of teams looking for help in the goalkeepers’ market.
Mete was once an analytical darling who achieved strong results with Montreal’s third pair. However, he fell out of favor in Quebec and has been unable to increase his shares in the country’s capital, where he largely fought for the senators.
However, a fresh start could help the smooth, underpowered puck-mover find the kind of consistent, positive form that made him a solid two-way presence with the Canadiens.
The key with Mete is to determine if he is misunderstood and undervalued or if he was a product of a strong system in Montreal. Some would argue that teams only see him as a puck mover with limited offensive advantage and overlook his usually strong two-way numbers because he’s stereotypical for his smaller stature. Others would say his work without the puck is a real concern and his positive underlying results are overstated and a result of a favorable environment in Montreal where many defenders had good grades.
We’ll have to wait to see which camp is the right one, but for now, Mete remains an intriguing depth option for a club looking to add mobility and puck movement.
After four seasons in the minors, Aube-Kubel finally broke through as an everyday NHLer for the Flyers in the 2019-20 season. He was an instant success, with secondary scoring, strong defensive skills and a non-stop engine. Aube-Kubel ran into trouble with penalties in 2020-21, eroding confidence built up, and this year he was handed out to the Colorado Avalanche.
The 26-year-old right winger is spirited, fast and an excellent precursor. He scored 11 goals and his ability to retrieve pucks has led to positive results when driving in two directions. Aube-Kubel doesn’t kill penalties and he can be inconsistent, but he would be worth a roll of the dice as a fourth line contributor who can move up to the third line in no time for teams playing an uptempo forechecking style.
Dahlen can score and offers real potential, but there are flaws in his game that make a big key.
The Sharks rookie came out of the gate in mid-December, scoring eight goals and 14 points in 26 games. From there, he suffered multiple injuries, including upper body conditions and a concussion, and was placed on COVID-19 protocol twice. He was never able to find his groove again, scoring just eight points in 34 games as of January 1, and was also a healthy scratch. He finished the season with 12 goals and 22 points in 61 games.
Dahlen excels low and can finish, but he is slow, undersized and not the most reliable two-way player. Is he the kind of tweener who is talented but isn’t? quite skilled enough to play a consistent mid-six role and who’s too one-dimensional to provide value further down the lineup? Or were his struggles in the second half mainly the result of injuries he can put behind him?
The 24-year-old is still young enough to take a step so he could be worth a shot at a rebuilding club that has open roster spots to offer opportunities.
Think of Donato as a downgraded version of Kubalik. He has a great shot that allows him to score in groups, but is a polarizing player due to his one-dimensional profile. Donato scored 16 goals and 31 points in 74 games for an attacking starved Seattle Kraken team last season. He doesn’t drive the game, has holes in his defensive play, is a tad undersized and needs shelter because of those factors.
Even with all those shortcomings, Donato’s ability to score efficiently cannot be denied – he ranks 56th among all NHL strikers in his 60-minute individual goals since the 2019-20 season.
Donato could be a sensible addition in a prescribed role where he can play sheltered under six minutes on a scoring line while getting power play reps.
Honorable Mentions: Brett Howden, Sam Steel, Kale Clague, Adam Gaudette, Matthew Highmore, Kevin Stenlund, Rem Pitlick, Daniel Sprong, Dennis Cholowski
With files by Thomas Drance
(Dylan Strome photo: Stan Szeto / USA Today)