News broke yesterday that Danton Heinen would go to Boston on a tryout, and in many ways Heinen is the perfect example of the salary cap crunch putting a squeeze on perfectly capable and viable NHL players.
Two summers ago Heinen (then 26) signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh worth $1.1 million. A budget signing in the world of the NHL, but one that at least made sense being as Heinen’s career stuttered with the Anaheim Ducks from 2019-21. Heinen was a perfect complimentary middle-line winger for the Pens in 2021-22, scored 18 goals and 33 points in 76 games while being flexible to play on either wing and on just about any line in any role you want.
His reward for that solid season was...not getting a qualifying offer by the Penguins, who feared what an arbitration decision might push his salary up to. Even though he had a great year and would seemingly be the type of player to play well on just about any club, Heinen ended up back in Pittsburgh for 2022-23 on a pay-cut ($1.0 million) on another one year deal. Last season wasn’t as solid as the previous (though Heinen individually was OK) and yet again in 2023, there was no market or impressive offers to be found.
The cap crunch is real and it has taken a bite out of the middle-level, middle-aged complimentary player like Heinen. He’ll now have to battle hard with his NHL future potentially on the line this month in Boston.
To some degree, that’s a similar story to be repeated about ex-Penguins and many of the players who still find themselves free agents at large, as training camps are set to begin. CapFriendly still has 35 players who appeared in 50+ games last season unsigned for this upcoming season (some restricted, some like Heinen starting to sign tryouts). Let’s check on some former Penguin players in that group.
Phil Kessel - The Thrill is about to turn 36-years old, and while his best playing days are well in the past, he did score 36 points in 82 games last year for Vegas. The sad common conclusion about the super-long Ironman streaks is that they end by scratches, benchings or contract disputes — not because of injury. That’s been the case for streaks No. 2 -6 behind Kessel (Keith Yandle, Doug Jarvis, Garry Unger, Patrick Marleau). Unfortunately, it looks like Phil will share a similar fate - but after playing 1,064 straight games, Kessel has more than already made his mark. Kessel has made it known he’s open to sitting and that he wants to keep playing, but has yet to find a taker for his services. (Before you ask or get excited, it’s tough to see the Pens being too interested in a reunion, given how things ended). Kessel is just eight points shy of 1,000 and with an opportunity to play somewhere should be able to cap his career with yet another achievement.
Zach Aston-Reese - It’s surprising that a player with such a known defensive impact like Aston-Reese struggles to find work these days. Last off-season he didn’t have a market, signed a PTO with Toronto, won a job and did about as expected with a solid-for-a-fourth-liner performance. He’s not old (turned 29 this summer) yet still is on the outer fringes of the league. With all of the analytics in the game, and Aston-Reese adding a ton for a team playing physical, defensively and doing the other “little things”, he would appear to be a perfect fit for just about any NHL club seeking a solid player for the bottom of the lineup.
Derick Brassard - Though not remembered fondly for his work in Pittsburgh, Brassard has had incredible staying power in the NHL. Last year he parlayed a PTO in Ottawa and started out as the extra healthy scratch forward and ended up being a big part of the team. Now 35, Brassard got to 1,000 career games last season before suffering a gruesome broken leg in April that ended his year. He was at peace then if that was the end of the road for his NHL career, which barring a late move could be the case.
Calen Addison - Unlike many others on the list, Addison has by far the most reason for optimism for where he’s at in this point of his career. Addison is a restricted free agent, and Minnesota is in a cap crunch. He’s expected to sign a short-term deal in the near future that will likely eat up most of the $1.6 million in cap space the Wild have. Addison has had to be patient to fit into their structure now (similar to Marcus Pettersson signing near league minimum for only his qualifying offer in 2018-19). Also like Pettersson, Addison should be primed to cash in with the contract after this, if he has a good 2023-24 coming off a rookie year that saw healthy scratches mixed with some quality play.
Nathan Beaulieu - Does he count as a “former Penguin” if he never appeared in a game? We’ll say sure. Beaulieu signed on in Carolina as a tryout, seemingly for little more than exhibition game fodder to help them meet veteran limits in a surprisingly hectic pre-season schedule that sees the Canes play four times in four days (and two games on the same night). Every time on the rink is a chance to impress the Hurricanes or some other club, and veteran physical defenders usually have a way of hanging around.
Scott Harrington - Speaking of hanging around, Harrington has carved out quite a career on the fringes and found ways to keep his playing days going at the NHL level. Now 30, the former 2011 Pittsburgh draftee will be back where he finished last season in Anaheim on a PTO. The Ducks aren’t exactly a stacked team, and thanks to the recent NHL expansion, a guy like Harrington has been in position to stick around in a 32-team climate for a while.
Alex Galchenyuk - Galchenyuk isn’t looking for work, but to close the loop on a scandalous story, waves were made after he signed with Arizona in July but made headlines shortly thereafter when his contract terminated after news broke about an incident with police that ended in arrest. Five of the six charges have been dropped following a guilty plea to one charge, and Galchenyuk opted to sign with St. Petersburg of the KHL for this season.