More than a month into free agency, most teams left scouring the open market are looking to take a chance on an affordable option with the potential, however slim, to make a difference at the NHL level. While some veterans can be willing to take a discount to continue their careers, they tend to be known commodities whose ceilings are capped at a certain level. More often, the better risk is to invest in a young player, who perhaps didn’t have the right opportunity of fit in their last locale and still have the ability to break out. The youngest members of the unrestricted free agent market are those former restricted free agents who did not receive qualifying offers. Eight such players are still available, including many familiar names. Which one would you most like your team to take a look at?
Ben Hutton, 26, was arguably the biggest surprise among non-qualified players and it is even more of a shock that he remains available. Hutton was a top-four regular for the Vancouver Canucks last season – the past four seasons really – logging more than 22 minutes per night and recording 20 points in 69 games. Hutton also recorded a career-high in hits and his third season of more than 100 blocked shots. However, Hutton was a key piece of a Canucks defense corps that simply wasn’t very good at their main job: preventing goals. Hutton had a team worst -23 rating and Vancouver was unwilling to qualify him at $2.8MM, especially as they set their sights on a long-term contract for Tyler Myers. Hutton could certainly play a regular role again for a number of NHL teams, but a “flier” for the UMaine product would really be more of a multi-year deal worth $2MM or more per year. That’s a significant investment for a player that still has to prove he can be a consistent positive contributor.
Fredrik Claesson, 26, played in just 37 games for the New York Rangers this past season, but in that limited action did average more than 17 minutes of ice time per night and added six points. The Swedish rearguard also finished third-best on the team with a +3 rating. Claesson would have been better served spending some time in the AHL as well last season, rather than watching 45 games from the press box, but the lack of immediate interest in him this off-season suggest that whichever team takes a chance on him likely doesn’t need to worry about his waivers viability. Claesson could be an asset as a very capable defensive blue liner who can mentor others at the AHL and also play a competent game as an NHL depth option. In the right situation, he could even hold down a regular role on a third pairing. Claesson only made $700K last season, so a minimum deal should be all he’s expecting.
Joe Morrow, 26, has never stuck around long enough to earn a regular role on a team. Traded twice before he even made his NHL debut, Morrow was buried in Boston for several years before hitting free agency for the first time two years ago at just 24, when the Bruins opted not to extend a qualifying offer. Morrow signed in Montreal and was well on his way to his first season of 41+ NHL appearances when he was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline. Fortunately, instead of playing a depth role, Morrow won a starting job and played well in 18 games down the stretch, totaling 56 games and 16 points on the year. Finally, he was expected to at least have a fighting chance at a regular role this past season in Winnipeg. The team gave him that chance, 41 games to be exact, and he disappointed, recording just seven points and earning less than 14 minutes of ice time. Morrow is still a good puck-moving defenseman, but some of the allure of the “what if he was given a fair shake” has worn off. For now, Morrow is simply a depth defenseman who can be a nice NHL substitute, but perhaps there is still a chance the former first-rounder can take advantage of an injury and put up some points.
Tobias Rieder, 26, might be the most recognizable name on this list and certainly the most accomplished forward. Rieder was a budding star early in his career, posting double-digit goals in each of his first four seasons, including a 37-point sophomore campaign. All of this came with the Arizona Coyotes, but when the ’Yotes traded Rieder midway through the 2017-18 season, things began to fall apart. Rieder disappointed in L.A., recording just six points down the stretch and zero in a first-round sweep, leading to the Kings not qualifying him last off-season. The Edmonton Oilers took a flier on Rieder, and as could happen with any of these players next season, it just didn’t pan out. Rieder failed to score a goal all season long and finished with just 11 assists in 67 games. The German winger bet on himself as well, signing a one-year, $2MM deal, but due to his poor results, Rieder will have to again take a one-year deal for even less this time to stay in the NHL. However, when it comes to upside, a 26-year-old with multiple successful scoring seasons on his resume, not to mention a strong two-way game, certainly brings some intrigue.
Dmitrij Jaskin, 26, was not prepared for what happened to him last season. Jaskin, who made his NHL debut as a teenage in 2012-13, was entering his seventh season with the St. Louis Blues. Jaskin had just completed a career-high 76-game season the year prior, contributing 17 points and a whopping 207 hits as an effective fourth-liner for St. Louis. Yet, the Blue placed him on waiver before last season began, and Jaskin was scooped up by the Washington Capitals. The Capitals used him sparingly, as the Russian winger saw his games played, ice time, and points all drop to their lowest in his five years as an NHL regular. Washington then opted not to qualify Jaskin at $1.1MM, even though their usage of him was largely the cause of his down season. Jaskin is arguably still worth around that much, as he could be a very capable checking line forward given his big frame and his experience using it. Jaskin’s ceiling might be limited offensively, but he could nevertheless be a value addition as a depth option for many teams.
Stefan Noesen, 26, seemed like he had found the perfect fit with the New Jersey Devils. The Anaheim Ducks lost Noesen to the Devils on waivers during the 2016-17 season and he proceeded to record eight points in 32 games the rest of the way after registering just two points in 14 NHL games over the past three seasons combined. Noesen then broke out the following year, earning a starting role with the Devils to the tune of 13 goals, 27 points, and +12 rating in 72 games. So what was the encore performance this past season? Eight points and -19 rating in 41 points, as the wheels fell off entirely for Noesen. The Devils decided to move on and now Noesen is left wondering what his NHL role can be moving forward. His 27-point campaign seems like the exception rather than the rule, and while his two-way game has impressed, he has not earned the opportunity to show that his even strength ability can also be used to kill penalties, which further limits his value. The question of what Noesen can really bring to the table explains why he’s still available, but also makes him an interesting target, especially at what has to be far from his $1.725MM salary from last season. A team that thinks they have Noesen figured out and can sign him to a minimum contract could be in for a surprising return.
Rourke Chartier, 23, was one of the more surprising players not to receive a qualifying offer, as the young forward just wrapped up his entry-level contract. The San Jose Sharks were unwilling to offer Chartier a qualifying offer that would have only been marginally higher than the league’s $700K minimum salary, and it would have been a two-way offer at that. San Jose apparently was not thrilled with the 2014 fifth-round pick, who made his NHL debut this past season, but recorded one lone point in 18 games. Chartier did register 18 points in 26 AHL games this year and as been a consistent contributor at the minor league level. However, there are concerns about whether the offensive upside that Chartier displayed as a junior player can translate to the pros. Chartier may be a total wild card at this point, but he is young enough and affordable enough to be a decent gamble for some team who believes in his potential.
Marko Dano, 24, rounds out the group. A first-round pick in 2013 out of Slovakia, Dano has immense ability, but has struggled to put it all together. As a rookie with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014-15, Dano contributed 21 points in just 35 games and looked like he was well on his way to becoming a top-six NHL forward. In fact, Columbus parlayed his strong first season into using him as a key piece in the (first) Brandon Saad trade. With the Chicago Blackhawks, Dano put up good numbers in the AHL but was not given much opportunity in the NHL and was traded after less than a year to the Winnipeg Jets. Dano looked like an immediate fit in Winnipeg, recording eight points in 21 games down the stretch of his sophomore season. Yet, in the three years since, Dano has just 14 points in 69 NHL games. This past season, he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Colorado Avalanche; the Avs put him back on waivers a month later after he had been held scoreless in eight games. The Jets brought Dano back in, but kept him in the AHL for the remainder of the year – where he again showed great offensive ability – before opting not to extend a qualifying offer. Four NHL teams have now taken a look at Dano in his young career and have passed. Although his ability is obvious, it’s fair to question whether teams still believe that Dano can figure out how to put it to use at the NHL level. Is a minimum contract worth answering that question though?
Of these eight players, which one is most worthy of an investment? Is it the more established, but more expensive veteran? The serviceable depth option? Or the unproven, but intriguing gamble? You choose which of these players you would like your favorite team to take a chance on, based on value and upside.