One of the biggest recent changes to the NHL landscape has been teams walking away from fairly useful restricted free agents. The flat salary cap can make teams very anxious about using qualifying offers to keep young players, even if they have played pretty well or were large parts of their team.
Last summer, Ottawa didn’t qualify Anthony Duclair and he went to Florida and scored 32 points in 43 games (which, think Jared McCann production, those two had identical points and games played). Similarly, Edmonton didn’t qualify Andreas Athanasiou and he was a pretty valuable player as well for LA.
Bringing up McCann’s name is no coincidence, since the Penguins need to replace his spot in the lineup and his production as well.
This summer there are new names added to free agency tomorrow, due to teams not opting to give qualifying offers that were due yesterday. Here are some of the most intriguing names:
OK let's run through some of the most interesting players who weren't tendered a qualifying offer and will therefore become UFA— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 26, 2021
Like Pius Suter, a 25 year old who played second line minutes with good two-way results and production rates. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/bgygnpYySo
Pius Suter is a player the Penguins definitely should have interest in. The 25-year old undrafted Swiss player came out of no where to score 27 points (14G+13A) in 55 games in his very first NHL season last year, which was also his first year in North American pro hockey at all.
Suter has already proven to be an offensive-minded and capable point producer that would help bolster the Pens’ wing situation, which has taken a big hit this month losing McCann and Brandon Tanev.
With his offensive style and ability to score goals, Suter looks like he would make a great option to be on Pittsburgh’s second line with Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen.
David Kampf and Pius Suter didn't receive a QO from the Chicago Blackhawks. Kampf is one of the best 4th line forwards in the NHL in our eyes. Pius Suter had really solid rookie season and he deserves another chance in the NHL. We don't like these moves by Bowman. pic.twitter.com/Z5XjwIWmTE— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) July 26, 2021
Remember the quotes from Ron Hextall talking about getting a little bigger, a little tougher to play against? The 6’2, 230 pound Nick Ritchie checks a lot of boxes here. Ritchie, 25, set a career-high in Boston last year with 15 goals in just 55 games.
He kind of gets knocked below for being a passenger and riding the coat-tails of his more talented linemates in close to the net. But guess what, a net-front presence with size and finishing ability is an aspect that Pittsburgh has lacked noticeable since Patric Hornqvist departed the team and would probably fit in well!
Nick Ritchie didn't receive a QO from the Boston Bruins, so he'll be also an UFA on Wednesday. Ritchie had solid season, but it was due to big TOI on PP with Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron especially. We don't like his game a lot to be honest. pic.twitter.com/WfNzc07jfr— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) July 26, 2021
The other thing to like about Ritchie is that his performances with the WAR perspective have been pointing up consistently over the last few seasons. His career has really seemed to gotten on track in its second act in Boston. I like that there’s no tricky big jumps or possibly one outlier “too good to be true” type of season to skew this outlook below, you just see a steady and constant progression up.
Or Nick Ritchie, a player who may not be William Nylander but has improved at both ends of the ice in each of the past three seasons. #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/HGKr4m1ys3— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 26, 2021
Ritchie led the Bruins’ forward group with 102 hits last season. He was tied for the team-lead with three fights. Let’s not act like this wouldn’t be a factor in signing him as well, the Pens are looking to get bigger and tougher where they can, and Ritchie has a big element of sandpaper in his game.
His Boston career also saw him score just 2 career playoff goals in 18 games, so again, let’s never confuse “big and tough” to necessarily mean “effective and good in the playoffs”, but all-around there would be a lot to like and a really great fit for Ritchie and the Pens on the ice.
Sticking with Bruins unqualified players, Ondrej Kase is probably THE one free agent a team would want. He’s a tremendous player and will help a team a lot while he’s on the ice...
..But there’s a really big catch, unfortunately. Kase is almost never on the ice. He only played three total games last season. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Kase has only played 88 games (out of about 207 total possible games). His career has been derailed due to concussion or post-concussion type issues. It’s a shame, because Kase is a really great player.
Or Ondrej Kase, whose injury problems have sidetracked what looked to be a very promising career. #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/8nXGVR1Eip— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 26, 2021
Ondrej Kase is another player who didn't receive a QO from the Boston Bruins. Add him to UFA market as a one of the most interesting forwards there. Yeah, his injury is a BIG question mark. But if Kase is healthy, he's legit middle-six winger. He was awesome in 2019/20 season. pic.twitter.com/davzytkQ3y— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) July 26, 2021
Ultimately, and unfortunately, this is probably not an avenue the Pens can afford to travel. Pittsburgh is a team that has a bad enough history of injury, they don’t have the luxury of adding a player who hasn’t been durable and might not be fit to play. Pittsburgh really has to consider health and Kase is just too much of an unknown quantity, and what is known isn’t great.
Losing Tanev means the Pens need some energy players on the lower lines to bring speed. Ryan Donato would be an interesting one to check in on. He’s scored 20 total goals and 43 points in the last two seasons as well.
Or Ryan Donato, a bottom six forward who had a big finishing bump last season that vanished this year. #SJSharks pic.twitter.com/Ho4xgZGtRG— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 26, 2021
I’m inclined to cut him a break and write off last season’s dip as more a San Jose problem then a Donato problem. Unlike Tanev, Donato has never been used in a PK role, so really he might be style-wise a better “poor man’s McCann” than a new age Tanev, but style comparisons aside, either way Donato could be a player to help the third line out that ought to be cheaper to the Pens’ salary cap than either McCann or Tanev would have been this season.
Our tour concludes with yet another former Bruin player (by way of Anaheim this time) in Danton Heinen. Just look at his 2017-19 where he scored a total of 81 points. That wasn’t too long ago and he’s still relatively young!
Heinen isn’t very physical and like his former teammate Donato, you would have to ask if it’s a situation of a player on a bad team or in a bad spot in Anaheim, or is he just going to be unable to sustain the success that he displayed for a couple of seasons in Boston?
The answer is probably more of the latter, but Heinen is a quick player who once was a very good supporting player and might be able to offer something to help rebuild the Pens’ middle lines as well on the cheap.
Overall Suter and Ritchie are the two that stand out the most, but they’re also going to be the ones that attract the most interest from the 31 other NHL teams as well. Unqualified free agents aren’t always discount signings, those players should be in position to do pretty well for themselves, but they also line up with the budget the Pens have available.
The numbers are clear that it would be a tough stretch to see how Pittsburgh would be able to incorporate a $5+ million cap hit for a player like Brandon Saad or Blake Coleman. But perhaps a Ritchie or a Suter in a range a notch below the top high-end players on the market? That makes a lot more sense and could be a sweet spot for the Pens to target starting tomorrow with the opening of free agency.