Ron Hextall struck for his first external roster move today by claiming defenseman Mark Friedman off of the waiver wire. Hextall is clearly no stranger to Friedman, having drafted him with Philadelphia in 2014 and being the general manager overseeing his progress through 2018.
Clearly Hextall knows a ton more than most associated with the Penguins. To get some dirt and the backstory on Friedman, I checked in with Kurt from Broad Street Hockey as an up close observer to Friedman over these years to obtain more insight.
Friedman is probably a JAG (just a guy). He’s had a long road to the NHL, taking three years at Bowling Green after getting drafted (in Ron Hextall’s first draft in charge of the Flyers) and spending two more full seasons with the Phantoms. No one can deny he has worked hard to get here, which fits his style of play on the ice. He’s small, which naturally some will hold against him, but he’s definitely got some toughness and physicality that offsets that. He’s a pretty good skater, too. I’m just ... not sure he’s got NHL-level skill. He’s just kinda OK at most things.
He’s not a particularly interesting or exciting player despite the decent physical talent. Not much offense to his game; he’s not a negative with the puck on his stick or anything but he’s not exactly a human highlight reel. His defensive abilities aren’t bad, but not special either. He never looked out of place in his NHL time, but he never really seemed to pop, and I know his on-ice numbers in those limited games were not very good (obvious small sample size caveat here).
I became somewhat skeptical of him becoming any kind of impact NHLer because I always saw him as a guy who won at the AHL level by just outworking dudes, and at the NHL level where everyone is faster and bigger and harder-working and more skilled, I just didn’t know if that was going to work out.
I think that’s a really great scouting report as far as what Friedman’s history as and a description of his attributes. From Hextall’s position, he sees this now 25-year old who is still somewhat young and perhaps having the upside to contribute to the NHL roster.
Here’s his resume and career-path from hockeydb:
The Penguins just got through a stretch where they had to sign Yannick Weber off the streets to play for them. And bring up Kevin Czuczman for his first NHL action since 2014. It took some extreme injury situations to get them to that point, but Pittsburgh’s defensive depth isn’t really that great.
Naturally, no NHL team is going to thrive if they have 4-5 defensive injuries all at the same time, but at the same time surely an audit done by Hextall of the organization’s overall depth and NHL caliber defenders couldn’t have been too impressive. Even in the AHL, over the weekend Wilkes-Barre was playing a lineup that included 5/6 of their defensive players being rookies. The Pens’ organization is very green and aside from probably their top four or five NHL defenders, not particularly good or flush with impressive depth options.
Can one say for sure that Friedman — with just 11 games of NHL experience to his own name — is going to be some great advancement for organizational depth and quality? Of course not. But it’s a start and a step in the right direction.
Here’s more from Kurt about Friedman:
As for this season? Clearly he was doing something the coaches didn’t like, because Alain Vigneault basically said a couple weeks ago straight-up that he was looking for more out of Friedman. (You could say this about basically all but two of the Flyers’ defensemen this year, but again, not going to go down that rabbit hole.) Then he got saved by the fact that the Flyers were so COVID-restricted that they just needed bodies, so they threw him out at forward, which always felt silly but I guess they were desperate. Anywho, with the Flyers starting to get guys back from the COVID list they were willing to take the chance to let him go, presumably to their taxi squad. So much for that.
Again, I don’t think the Flyers missed out on much here. I think Friedman can be an acceptable third-pairing NHL defenseman, and that kind of guy shouldn’t be hard to find. (Shouldn’t.) I doubt the ceiling is really any higher than that, but maybe that can help the Pens.
A right handed, 25-year old third pairing player with a contract for next season with a $725,000 cap hit would be just fine for the Penguins to add to their team. Next season only Kris Letang and John Marino are under contract as RHD in the lineup, with Chad Ruhwedel always hanging around the fringes of the lineup, as Chad Ruhwedel does. Any result less than winning the Stanley Cup will likely bring Letang trade rumors to a fever pitch as he enters the last season of his contract.
The beauty of the Friedman acquisition for the Penguins is that it’s basically a free look at a relatively young player who has impressed and grown at the AHL levels and seemingly made gradual but very real strides in his game over each season of the past few years.
Friedman isn’t going to make an NHL all-star team, but that’s just fine. If it turns out that he doesn’t fit in that well, and even that players like Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola show in practice they are superior players to Friedman, this could be an “easy come, easy go” situation and the Pens can cut Friedman right back to the waiver wire as a no harm, no foul type of look at a player that their GM obviously has a level of interest in.
For many ways (and why I wrote about this before it even happened), picking up Friedman off waivers seems like the perfect opening move for Hextall. It’s smart, measured, coming from a place of comfortability where the GM has a lot of knowledge about this move.
It’s also a move that while it isn’t going to be a home run, the only possible outcomes is that the Penguins are either: A) better off by doing it or B) in the same boat if it doesn’t work out. That’s the type of shrewd and measured managing moves that the Pens will probably grow to expect from Hextall as the months and years go on.