While the negotiations with Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin are the most important on-going items on the Penguins’ management docket at the moment, the question about qualifying restricted free agents will be on the table soon too.
Players who qualify for restricted free agency must be given a QO with a deadline of a few days prior to the start of free agency (which is July 13th this year).
The Pens’ RFA’s this year are Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen from their NHL roster. They have a host of minor league RFA’s to decide on as well, but the two NHL players are the most important, especially since they have the right to file for a salary arbitration hearing that would take place later in the summer.
Elliotte Friedman shared a thought on restricted free agency in his latest 32 Thoughts:
There are a lot of eyes on qualifying offers. Cap space is tight, and the arbitration walk-away number this summer is $4,538,958. (Teams can’t “walk-away” from any award below that number.) If they’re not convinced a player’s production matches, teams may choose to let them go free in July rather than risk an arbitration award they can’t escape. Toronto followers were confused by an Ondrej Kase Instagram post where he thanked Maple Leafs fans, taking it as an indication that he might be leaving. That’s premature, I think there are talks underway, but it’s not wrong to think the team would be spooked by an arbitration award in a tight cap situation.
Others to watch include: Ethan Bear (Carolina), Denis Gurianov (Dallas), Kasperi Kapanen (Pittsburgh), Dylan Strome (Chicago), Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha (New Jersey). It’s not to say all of these players are guaranteed to hit the market. It’s more like, teams are watching to see what decisions are made.
With cap space at a premium, Pittsburgh’s decisions on how they will be able to round out their middle lines will probably start at what salary they have available for players like Kapanen and Heinen (and probably unrestricted free agent Evan Rodrigues as well).
In that regard, since putting the salary cap is like fitting the pieces of a puzzle together, just how much the team allots to Letang and Malkin will be very meaningful for how much space remains for their restricted players.
Both Heinen and Kapanen have an Evolving Hockey contract projection in the mid $2 million range, which might not be 100% accurate but is a good starting point for either player’s next salary.
The issue for a team is the unknown. Most players elect for arbitration in order to leverage the process of the contract negotiation. Teams and players alike mostly want to avoid actually going through the hearing, which could result in an unfavorable decision. As Friedman mentions, if the Pens qualify a player and no agreement is reached, both players are in range where surely the team will have to honor any award that is given.
That could be problematic, if say, Heinen uses the strength of his 18-goal season to pull down a $2.75 million or $3 million award and the team’s internal planning was hoping to get him closer to the $2.0 million range. While a gap of about a million dollars might seem relatively small in the big scheme of things it will matter quite a bit for a team that is always scraping the upper limit of the salary cap.
Such a factor of the unknown has often led teams to not qualify a player, in hopes they could get him for a better price and with the fear of not being stuck with a salary that they can’t or don’t want to pay if it’s more than expected.
Not receiving a qualifying offer does not necessarily mean a player will be gone, in the somewhat recent past Pittsburgh has signed Tyler Kennedy and Rodrigues himself after electing not to submit a qualifying offer but still negotiating as now an unrestricted free agent.
The Pens still have about a month to see how and where they will try to fit the big pieces (Letang, Malkin) and then what that means for the next level of players.
From a somewhat philosophical point, do the Pens probably double (or more) Danton Heinen’s 2021-22 salary, when they found him in the bargain bin last off-season for a team-friendly contract? Or do they move on and try to identify this year’s version of Heinen who might currently be an unrestricted free agent? Whether or not such a player even is available on the market is also a question with an unknown answer as well.
One such player could be identified by Friedman in Miles Wood. Injury concerns are real with Wood coming off a hip injury that only allowed him to play three games, but the potential for adding a decent player could be there, either through trade or potentially as an unrestricted free agent if New Jersey opts to not want to move forward with a soon-to-be UFA coming off injury.
If not specifically Wood, other options beyond bringing back one or both of Heinen and Kapanen will probably be out there. As always in the off-season, player personnel and contract negotiations is like that big, messy puzzle that is always evolving as teams look to navigate their team’s cap structure while slotting in the right talent at the right price.
The makeup of Pittsburgh’s middle lines next season will be largely dependent on what decisions are made through restricted free agency. The first steps there will be determining just how much room they have to do work with, and how much they want to bring the same players back or change up the mix of talents and personalities on the team.