The flattened trajectory of the Upper Limit in the NHL in recent years has resulted in teams increasingly opting to non-tender players to avoid the risk of a salary arbitration award coming in higher than what they were willing to pay or could afford. Some of those players signed quickly while others remained unsigned exactly one month into the opening of the market.
Sam Steel fits in the latter of the categories in an outcome that few could have predicted just a couple of years ago. A first-round pick back in 2016 (30th overall), Steel was quite impressive in the minors in his rookie campaign in 2018-19, earning himself a 22-game stint with Anaheim. He did quite well with the Ducks, recording 11 points while seemingly entrenching himself as a staple of their future center plans.
Unfortunately for both him and Anaheim, things have largely gone downhill for Steel since then. While he has played exclusively in the NHL since then, he hasn’t come close to producing at the per-game levels of his first professional campaign. As a result, his playing time and role diminished over the last couple of seasons to the point where he was a healthy scratch a handful of times last season.
Still, young centers are hard to come by and often get extra looks with the organization that drafted them. But Anaheim wasn’t worried about being able to afford his cap hit; they simply wanted to part ways with the 24-year-old. The perceived upside from a few years ago and the fact he plays a premium position makes Steel one of the more intriguing players still available on the open market.
2021-22: 68 GP, 6-14-20, -17 rating, 16 PIMS, 66 shots, 46.0 CF%, 49.3 FO%, 12:19 ATOI
Career: 197 GP, 24-41-65, -35 rating, 52 PIMS, 226 shots, 47.5 CF%, 50.5 FO%, 14:09 ATOI
While some veteran players are likely hoping to catch on with a team with a chance of a long playoff run, Steel should be looking in the complete opposite direction. A squad that will give him a chance at earning a 13th or 14th spot on the roster is an opportunity for another season of NHL money but then what? Another year with limited minutes and production doesn’t bode well for him for the 2023 offseason. For Steel, finding a landing spot with a team that will give him a chance at seeing somewhat regular playing time is crucial. That could have him gravitating towards a rebuilding team over a veteran-laden squad with postseason expectations.
In the East, Ottawa is one team that might be a happy medium in terms of playoff hopes with a shot at playing time. The Sens have cycled through depth centers in recent years and have some younger players that have mostly been minor leaguers to this point that are going to push for playing time plus Dylan Gambrell who was on the fringes when it came to playing time a year ago. Steel could potentially supplant one of those players and see somewhat regular minutes on a team that should make a postseason push. The Hurricanes lost both Vincent Trocheck and Derek Stepan this summer. Stepan’s spot, in particular, could be a spot for Steel. If Montreal clears out some of its forward surplus in the coming weeks, they could wind up being a bit thin down the middle, creating an opportunity there as well.
Out West, Arizona has several young centers already but two of them – Jack McBain and Nathan Smith – haven’t played in the AHL yet. If the Coyotes prefer to give one of them top minutes in the minors, that could create a spot for him on a team that could justify playing him heavy minutes in a rebuilding year. The Jets need to add some forwards to fill out their roster and no established centers have been added yet to replace Andrew Copp (moved at the trade deadline) and Paul Stastny (currently a UFA). If Minnesota would prefer Marco Rossi to get more time in the minors, a spot on the middle of their fourth line might be a fit as well.
As a player that will likely have a limited role to start wherever he winds up, Steel might be better off waiting until partway through training camp to sign when preseason injuries could open up playing time opportunities that aren’t presently there although that approach certainly carries some risk.
At this point, with the year that Steel had and the fact he remains unsigned at this point, it’s hard to imagine him receiving more than the league minimum. He has two years of team control remaining through arbitration but, again, that can work against players that are lower on the depth chart. If a team wanted a two-year commitment to avoid that arbitration risk next summer, Steel might be able to get a bit more than the minimum but otherwise, he’s likely to sign for $750K wherever he winds up in the coming weeks.
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