The NHL’s qualifying offer deadline has created an enticing secondary market for mining impact producers. In fact, this year’s crop of unqualified restricted free agents is more talented than ever before.
For a club to retain the rights over its RFAs, it had to tender the player a qualifying offer equivalent to the base salary of their last contract by 5 pm ET Monday. Many teams would actually prefer to keep some of their non-tendered RFAs, but these players are often arbitration-eligible. If the player files for arbitration, the team risks an unfavorable salary ruling, one that a club is not legally permitted to walk away from unless the cap hit is $4,538,958 or higher. In other words, once a team has qualified an RFA, there’s no cost certainty and there’s no turning back if the player proceeds for arbitration. That obviously poses a risk for clubs that are squeezed against the salary cap.
Any RFA that was not tendered a qualifying offer is eligible to become a UFA on July 13. With that in mind, here are 10 of the most intriguing non-tendered free agents, plus honorable mentions.
Since arriving in Chicago, Dylan Strome has scored 154 points in 225 games, a 56-points per 82 games clip. It was a big surprise then, that he wasn’t qualified at his modest $3.6 million rate, considering the Blackhawks are swimming in cap space. Even if he didn’t factor into the club’s long-term plans, he would have been better for Chicago to come to a short-term agreement and trade him at the deadline rather than let him walk for nothing.
Alas, here we are.
Strome’s a very useful middle-six center which should be attractive for teams that need help down the middle. Since the 2019-20 campaign, Strome has scored 1.92 points per hour at five-on-five, which is a bona fide top-six rate.
There are yellow flags to keep in mind though. For one, Strome’s skating is still sluggish which makes him a questionable two-way player. Because of that, he needs to be carefully and strategically deployed to succeed. The Blackhawks knew this as they fed Strome a heavy dosage of offensive zone starts, mostly played him against bottom-six competition and lined up Patrick Kane on his wing for long stretches.
The fit is key: Strome makes a lot of sense for a team that needs an offensively-gifted middle-six center on a sheltered scoring line.
Kubalik is a one-dimensional scorer but when you can consistently fill the net, clubs can often overlook those flaws. The 26-year-old Czech left winger has scored 62 goals in 202 career NHL games, which translates to a 25-goals-per-82-games pace.
Unfortunately, his results have been trending in the wrong direction. Kubalik’s goal and point scoring rates have dropped in consecutive seasons and his play-driving profile has regressed too. One explaining factor is the lack of help around him. Jonathan Toews, Kubalik’s most common centreman, was still a high-end top-six pivot in 2019-20 when Kubalik potted 30 goals as a rookie, and the Chicago captain just isn’t the same player he once was. Kubalik can’t drive a line on his own, so it’s not surprising that his production has fallen without a top-notch center to drive play for his line.
Kubalik may not have the 30-goal upside he flashed in 2019-20, as he shot an unsustainably high 19.1 percent that year. But he still offers legitimate 20-25 goal upside in a middle-six role.
Heinen wasn’t tendered a QO by the Anaheim Ducks last offseason; now he’s in the same situation with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In this case, he was non-tendered because he played so well that there was a high risk of an expensive arbitration ruling, one that the Penguins might not have been able to afford given their precarious cap situation. He was too good, in other words, and priced himself out of Pittsburgh.
Heinen was a crucial source of secondary scoring with 18 goals and 33 points in 76 games. Fifteen of those goals were at five-on-five, which tied him with Sidney Crosby for second on the club. That kind of lofty even-strength goal scoring is obviously an outlier, but we’re still talking about a player who’s scored at a 36-points-per-82-game clip over his NHL career.
In addition to his secondary scoring, Heinen was a strong, two-way play driver who tilted the ice in Pittsburgh’s favor with very positive shot, scoring chance and goal shares.
Teams looking for a versatile, scoring and reliable bottom-six forward should heavily consider Heinen.
This one’s pretty surprising. Milano’s a creative, gifted playmaker who finally established himself with a solid campaign, notching 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games next to Trevor Zegras. The 26-year-old’s combination of speed and skill allows him to consistently create controlled zone entries and set up his linemates for dangerous scoring chances.
Milano’s work away from the puck isn’t perfect but a look underneath the hood reveals that his two-way profile wasn’t a problem at all. The Ducks actually controlled a strong 52 percent share of shot attempts and scoring chances during his five-on-five minutes last season.
Speed and skill are increasingly important in the modern game. In Milano, teams can bid on an inexpensive player who can provide both.
After a frustrating 2020-21 campaign that saw him miss all but three games with injury, Ondřej Kaše authored a nice bounce-back performance last season. The 26-year-old right winger profiles as a valuable middle-six Swiss Army knife-type player — he can score (14 goals and 27 points in 50 games), kill penalties and offers transition help with his successful track record of generating zone entries.
Health remains the biggest risk with Kase. He’s been through the wringer with multiple head injuries and has suited up for 60+ games in a season just once in his career. The talent is there, but how much will a team commit knowing the health concerns?
Injuries and inconsistency undermined Samsonov’s time with the Capitals, who finally decided it was time to move on.
Samsonov doesn’t have a great NHL track record as he’s managed just a .903 save percentage over 94 career games. That said, he’s big, athletic, comes with good pedigree as the No. 22 selection in 2015 and is still fairly young at 25. Samsonov can look at a fellow UFA like Jack Campbell as proof of concept for how a highly-touted goaltending prospect who’s lost his way a little bit can get his career back on track.
Samsonov could be an interesting upside bet as a No. 2, especially considering how many teams are looking for help on the goalie market.
Mete was once an analytics darling who drove strong results from Montreal’s third pair. He fell out of favor in Quebec though and hasn’t been able to boost his stock in the nation’s capital where he largely struggled for the Senators.
A fresh start, however, could help the smooth-skating, undersized puck-mover find the kind of consistent, positive form that made him a solid two-way presence with the Canadians.
The key with Mete is identifying if he’s misunderstood and undervalued or if he was a product of a strong system in Montreal. Some would argue that teams only look at him as a puck-mover with limited offensive upside and are overlooking his usually strong two-way numbers because he’s stereotyped for his smaller stature. Others would say that his work without the puck is genuinely a concern and that his positive underlying results are overrated and a result of a favorable environment in Montreal where many defensemen had good numbers.
We’ll have to wait to see which camp is right, but for now, Mete remains an intriguing depth option for a club that wants to add mobility and puck-moving skills.
After plying his trade in the minors for parts of four seasons, Aube-Kubel finally broke through as an everyday NHLer for the Flyers in the 2019-20 season. He was an instant success, offering secondary scoring, strong defensive value and a non-stop motor. Aube-Kubel ran into penalty trouble in 2020-21, which eroded the trust he had built up, and this year he was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche.
The 26-year-old right winger is feisty, fast and an excellent forechecker. He chipped in with 11 goals and his puck-retrieval ability has led to positive two-way play-driving results. Aube-Kubel doesn’t kill penalties and he can be inconsistent, but he’d be worth a roll of the dice as a fourth-line contributor who can step up to the third line in a pinch for teams that play an uptempo forechecking style .
Dahlen can score and offers genuine potential, but there are flaws in his game that make fit a big key.
The Sharks rookie came out of the gate on a heater, scoring eight goals and 14 points in 26 games by mid-December. From there, he suffered multiple injuries including upper-body ailments and a concussion, and was twice placed on COVID-19 protocol. He was never quite able to find his groove again, scoring just eight points in 34 games from Jan. 1 onward, and was a healthy scratch as well. He finished the season with 12 goals and 22 points in 61 games.
Dahlen excels down low and can finish but he’s slow, undersized and isn’t the most reliable two-way player. Is he the kind of tweener that’s talented but not quite skilled enough to play a consistent middle-six role and who’s too one-dimensional to offer value further down the lineup? Or were his second-half struggles mostly a result of injuries that he’ll be able to put behind him?
The 24-year-old is still young enough to take a step so he could be worth a gamble for a rebuilding club that has open roster spots to offer opportunity.
Think of Donato as a downgraded version of Kubalik. He has a terrific shot that allows him to score goals in bunches but is a polarizing player because of his one-dimensional profile. Donato scored 16 goals and 31 points in 74 games last season for an offensively-starved Seattle Kraken squad. He doesn’t drive play, has holes in his defensive game, is a tad undersized and because of those factors, does need to be sheltered.
Even with all of those flaws, Donato’s ability to deliver efficient scoring can’t be denied — he ranks 56th among all NHL forwards for his individual goals-per-60-minutes rate since the 2019-20 season.
Donato could be a sensible add in a prescribed role where he can play sheltered bottom-six minutes on a scoring line while getting power-play reps.
Honorable mentions: Brett Howden, Sam Steel, Kale Clague, Adam Gaudette, Matthew Highmore, Kevin Stenlund, Rem Pitlick, Daniel Sprong, Dennis Cholowski
With files from Thomas Drance
(Photo of Dylan Strome: Stan Szeto/USA Today)