Due to the flat salary cap, a strange but growing phenomenon has been developing in the NHL last year that we will probably see continue again this off-season. What once was a little thought of procedural move to give a restricted free agent a qualifying offer has suddenly become an area where teams either don’t want to or can’t afford to keep the rights of players who have performed well and would otherwise normally be retained without much second thought.
Consider that Anthony Duclair scored 23 goals and 40 points for the Ottawa Senators in 66 games in 2019-20. He found himself released to unrestricted free agency without a qualifying offer.
Or that the Edmonton Oilers traded not one, but TWO second round picks to acquire Andreas Athanasiou in February 2020. They would also not give him a qualifying offer just months later, turning him loose into free agency.
The situation was repeated in several other cities, we saw it firsthand in Pittsburgh with Dominik Simon, it happened in Buffalo to Dominik Kahun or Toronto to Evan Rodrigues or Arizona to Vinnie Hinostroza — where teams allowed rights to expire and players to leave.
In all cases, the unchanged salary cap was cited, but also the player’s rights to arbitration. NHL teams cannot “walk away” or refuse to accept any award that is less than the average salary, which is adjusted to over $4.5 million dollars last off-season.
Arbitration tends to inflate player salary more than teams want to pay, and the process can be unpredictable. With so little room to navigate the salary cap, unpredictability of projecting future salaries is not a risk teams are willing or interested or really just able to take.
Here’s the kicker for the Penguins this off-season: Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger are now in that category of free agent that needs a qualifying offer to have their rights retained. But a qualifying offer also comes with the player’s ability to elect for salary arbitration over the summer.
In the past, that hasn’t really been a big deal or issue, but it certainly is now. Checking line center Andrew Copp from Winnipeg got a $2.28 million award from arbitration in 2019 coming off an 11 goal, 25 point season. That same summer Rodrigues got a $2.0 million award for a nine goal, 29 point season. It would be easy to see Blueger and Aston-Reese’s respective agents uses cases like those to illustrate salaries into that range, which presents a big problem as the Pens are currently constructed.
At most, Pittsburgh has nearly $4 million in cap space available currently for next season. But that’s only if they scrimp and have the ability/budget to pay some players one-way NHL salaries to play in the AHL like Juuso Riikola, Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello. This is a consideration that may or may not be in the cards and might not be a simple assumption to make as much as it has in year’s past. Budget and curbing costs and maximizing payroll has mattered in Pittsburgh lately, a natural response to the team’s restricted ability to gain revenue in the COVID era or no or limited ticket sales.
The impending Seattle expansion draft on July 21st could provide some relief on this front. Should the Kraken take a player from the Pens who makes a significant salary like Jason Zucker or Marcus Pettersson, suddenly Pittsburgh’s salary cap crunch is dramatically lessened. Obviously if Seattle opts to select one of Aston-Reese or Blueger, the Pens won’t have to worry about signing them then either.
Qualifying offers aren’t due until after the expansion draft, so the Pens will be able to wait and see how that process plays out before moving forward.
With players like Lafferty and Angello signed for next season, and Samuel Poulin turning pro, and others like Frederick Gaudreau and Evan Rodrigues as potential unrestricted free agents who could be retained, the future of the Pens’ fourth line for next season is a very interesting one to consider.
For a few years now the “buzzsaw” line of Aston-Reese, Blueger and Brandon Tanev have performed exceptionally well on the ice. But expansion, a tight salary structure, and an impending threat of arbitration may break that buzzsaw up, unless general manager Ron Hextall can find ways to clear the cap space that will be necessary to bring the “restricted” free agents back.
It will be telling to see if either, both or none are qualified by Pittsburgh this summer. Restricted free agents have never been more free and less restricted at any point in the NHL’s history. That is shaping up to be a good thing for the bank accounts of Mr. Blueger and Mr. Aston-Reese, but could spur changes to the Pens’ lineup next season.