When the deadline to issue qualifying offers to restricted free agents comes and goes each year, there are always a few surprises on the list of those who did not receive an offer. For both those players and teams across the league, it can often be a shock that those players are suddenly unrestricted free agents able to sign with whoever they like. Oftentimes, not receiving a qualifying offer does not automatically mean that the player and his team are through. Already this year, defensemen Derrick Pouliot, Ryan Murphy, and Joe Morrow and forwards Riley Sheahan and Phil Di Giuseppe were not tendered an offer, but soon after signed with their respective squads. Yet, this year has also left more notable names than usual to be scooped up by another team come July 1st.
Robin Lehner, the 26-year-old starting goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres, was one of the earliest known players to not be qualified. Whenever a starter hits the open market it can draw attention, but it’s much more surprising when that starter is both young and experienced. Lehner has seen regular NHL action for the past five years, some as a backup or “1B” with the Ottawa Senators and others as the “1A” for Buffalo. Granted, Lehner has had his fair share of difficulties, both staying healthy and performing when he is on the ice, but it came as surprise that the rebuilding Sabres were so willing to move on from their young keeper. In each of his first two seasons in Buffalo, Lehner posted a save percentage of .920 or better and a majority of his appearances were quality starts. Only this season did those numbers drop off, but apparently that was enough for Buffalo to cut him loose. With Chad Johnson also a free agent, the Sabres head into the off-season lacking any true NHL-caliber goalies on the roster.
Anthony Duclair, just 22 and a former 20-goal scorer, was another surprise that many did not see coming. In his sophomore season in the NHL in 2015-16, the 20-year-old Duclair played in 81 games for the Arizona Coyotes and registered 44 points, good enough for fourth on the team. The young winger even garnered Calder Trophy votes. However, last season his play fell off substantially and this year was only marginally better, prompting a mid-season trade to the Chicago Blackhawks. Many opined that a change of scenery would be good for Duclair, who has shown great talent but needs to put it all together on a more consistent basis. Yet, Chicago gave the experiment 23 games before deciding to move on. A team with major cap problems who is always in need of affordable scoring let a young goal-scorer with years left of team control remaining walk in free agency after less than half a season.
Tobias Rieder, a 25-year-old two-way forward, found himself in a similar situation. Rieder was traded to the Los Angeles Kings ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline and played well in his limited role down the stretch for the Kings. However, it wasn’t enough as Rieder was curiously non-qualified after just 20 regular season games in L.A. Before that, the well-rounded forward had played a major role in the forward corps of the Arizona Coyotes. Rieder has recorded more than 20 points in each of his four NHL seasons and has been a double-digit scorer in each year as well. The young German winger plays a smart, physical style and has an innate ability to crash the net and light the lamp. At 25, he still has room to grow and has 20-goal potential in the right situation. The Kings passed up a chance to take a longer look at what Rieder can do and, of course, have scoring winger as their biggest need this summer.
Dylan DeMelo, the 25-year-old defenseman most recently of the San Jose Sharks, is a hard one to understand as well. DeMelo seemingly did everything he was asked of in San Jose, but found himself a free agent anyway. DeMelo had worked to carve out a role for himself with the Sharks in his first two seasons with the team, but in 2017-18 seemed to have found his place. The young defender skated in 63 games and set a new career high in points by a wide margin with 20. While DeMelo is not an offensive juggernaut by any means, he is solid defensively and was a nice complement on the blue line to the many other talented defenders in San Jose. Even if the Sharks were worried about committing too much money to defense or wanted to give some more time to other even younger options, it is hard to imagine that they couldn’t have found a taker for DeMelo on the trade market.
What do you think? Who is the biggest surprise among the RFA’s that did not receive qualifying offers this year and now find themselves looking for a new team this summer as a UFA?
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