Free agency has been going on for six weeks now in the hockey world, but it’s been a tough market for many players looking for their next deals. The upper limit of the NHL’s salary cap has barely budged in the last five years, advancing just 3.7% from $79.5 million during the 2018-19 season to now $82.5 million for the 2022-23 season.
That squeeze has to put a crunch on some players when others are still signing long and lucrative contracts, and that’s no better illustrated than the plight of Evan Rodrigues. He’s a prime age of 29. He’s coming off a career-best season of 19 goals and 43 points. He can play center or wing, on anything from the first to fourth line. And yet, he’s still unsigned. His former teammate Danton Heinen was in a similar situation, having to actually take a $100k paycut from last season, despite notching 18 goals.
It’s wild that is the world and business climate for NHL hockey these days, but so it goes. Luckily for Rodrigues, he won’t be a free agent for an indefinite amount of time if reports keep coming out that teams are interested, perhaps this will inspire someone else to step up, if Calgary doesn’t end up signing him themselves.
Phil Kessel, while slowing down and aging, was in a similar case sitting unsigned deep into free agency until Vegas finally got him a contract earlier in the week. Besides the unfortunate case of Rodrigues, here are some other former Penguin players who appeared in an NHL games last season and still looking for their next home.
Brian Boyle: Boyle is old and slow, but also was still an effective fourth line player and positive team influence for Pittsburgh last season. Most teams are going to be weary about a soon-to-be 38-year old, however, and Boyle is seeing that again this off-season. He might need a PTO offer to attend a training camp and try to win a job again, like he did with the Pens last fall.
Alex Galchenyuk: Galchenyuk scored only six goals (and 21 points) in 60 games last season with Arizona. Which, for anonymous as the Coyotes are, it’s hard to remember that Galchenyuk was actually in the NHL at all last season. He’s played for four teams since being traded from Pittsburgh in 2020, and hasn’t found his mojo anywhere (despite the best efforts of Toronto writers attempting to cheer a redemption story into existence). NHL employment could be at an end for the 28-year old.
Daniel Sprong - Speaking of players who leave a bad taste and bounce around a lot, Daniel Sprong healthy scratched himself out of Washington (much like he did in Pittsburgh and Anaheim) and ended up traded to the expansion Seattle Kraken to play out the stretch of last season. Sprong did what Sprong does — score just enough to tantalize (six goals, zippy assists in 16 games for Seattle) but was not given a qualifying offer by the Kraken. At just 25 but already washing out on four different teams and not always having the most optimistic attitude about playing in the AHL, who knows what is next for Sprong. He could be a player that finds more success in Europe, and that chapter of his career might be starting soon at this rate.
Derick Brassard - Brassard scored 16 points in 31 games with the Flyers (of course he would actually try and perform somewhat decently well over there) and was a well-regarded player before being traded to Edmonton and becoming a non-factor for the playoffs (where he only dressed for one game). Brassard turns 35 next month, but has a very impressive ability to just keep hanging around and finding new teams to play for. He’s appeared on six different teams since being traded by Pittsburgh in 2019. He’s played for five different Metropolitan teams (CBJ, NYR, PIT, NYI, PHI), is Washington, Carolina or New Jersey next?
Zach Aston-Reese - Despite having some truly wonderful defensive impacts, Aston-Reese’s career has been hampered by a lack of scoring lately, possibly to the point of costing him employment. He did fairly well playing out the stretch in Anaheim after being included in the Rickard Rakell trade mainly to balance salaries, he scored three goals in 17 games with the Ducks, which beat just two goals in 52 games during the Pittsburgh portion of his season. The NY native was reported to be skating at the Devils’ practice rink (which might not be that big of a deal - many other, non Devils associated local NYC-area NHL players skate there during the summer), but nothing came of that by way of a signed contract. And beyond that, not much in the way of Aston-Reese news or rumors in what never is a good sign to be an ice cold free agent.
Dominik Simon - Unlike Aston-Reese, there wasn’t much memorable or to write home about for Simon in Anaheim (no goals, four assists in 17 games). And then there was the bizarre World Championship event, where Simon was kicked off Team Czechia in the middle of the tournament for starting a fight with his own teammate. Who knows what happened there, but that type of incident isn’t going to help trying to find another job somewhere else.
Carter Rowney - After playing 2018-21 in Anaheim (including a few solid seasons in the middle of his stint there) the 2017 Stanley Cup champion was in Detroit for 2021-22. It was a mostly forgettable season with only 26 games and six points (four goals, two assists). That now marks two poor seasons for Rowney. 33-year old replacement-ish level players aren’t usually allowed to have two bad years in a row and continue to find high-level employment in the hockey world.
James Neal - holy cow, the “Real Deal”! The five-year $28.75 million contract he signed in 2018 with Calgary was bought out in 2021, and Neal went to St. Louis’ camp on a PTO last fall. He did really well and ended up turning it into a contract, but the magic ran out and he was eventually waived and sent to the AHL last year. Playing his first games in that league since 2008, he actually did well and scored 26 points in 28 games for Springfield. With almost $57 million in career earnings (and three more years of that sweet, sweet buyout money coming from Edmonton), it remains to be seen if Neal will continue his playing days or if the 35-year old will be heading off into the sunset.
Blake Comeau - now we’re deep into “remember this guy” territory. After reviving his career in 2014-15 with the Pens (if Evgeni Malkin didn’t get a cut of Comeau’s future earnings since then, he definitely should have), Comeau’s season, and possibly NHL career, ended with a whimper. He played six games with Dallas in the early days of the season, got waived in November and was assigned to the AHL. But he never went. Dallas didn’t press the issue and force Comeau to report, allowing to take what said said to be three weeks of time off due to injury. (Or maybe, an “injury”). He hasn’t played a game since and no one really seems to have talked about why. At 36, this probably is the end of the road.
Scott Harrington - This guy is only 29! Having played with Columbus since 2016, it looks like Harrington’s NHL days are over too. He was waived during the season, went unclaimed and played most the year in AHL Cleveland. Harrington has logged 210 career NHL games, 185 with CBJ and I would have guessed at least double on both fronts. Felt like that guy has been hanging around for a long time.