7 notable unqualified RFAs who are now UFA-eligible

NHL insider Renaud Lavoie joins Sportsnet 590 The FAN, to discuss the intrigue of one of the top UFAs in Matt Duchene meeting with the Montreal Canadiens, especially a year after being snubbed by John Tavares.

We know all about the big fish in this summer’s free agent pond.

Even with Erik Karlsson being taken off the market since re-signing with the Sharks, headliners Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky remain. Centre Matt Duchene has already visited with Montreal and will soon visit with the Predators, among others. Jake Gardiner and Tyler Myers top the UFA defencemen list. Joe Pavelski has scored at least 29 goals in five of the past six seasons and may leave San Jose, while declining veterans Corey Perry, Jason Spezza and Dion Phaneuf could give a team could value when they ultimately sign at a reduced price.

Earlier this week teams had one more decision to make prior to free agency opening July 1: to qualify or not qualify certain RFAs. All the big ones were no brainers: Sebastian Aho, Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor — all the potential offer sheet targets who make this summer’s RFA class so loaded got their qualifying offers. But there were a number of RFAs who didn’t, either because the team chose to part with them, or because a qualifying offer made their next contract too expensive. Some of these players are still negotiating with their former teams for a smaller AAV.

Those RFAs left unqualified now become UFAs on July 1 and are added to the pool. They should be cheap targets to fill out depth, and perhaps will turn in terrific performances next season. Remember, last summer Robin Lehner (Buffalo) and Petr Mrazek (Philadelphia) were unqualified RFAs who went on to have solid seasons in their new destinations.

Are there any diamonds in the rough like those two this summer? Here’s a quick look at some notable players who were left unqualified.

Nathan Beaulieu, Winnipeg Jets
Just two years ago Beaulieu averaged nearly 20 minutes a game for the Montreal Canadiens, was used on their second power play unit, and compiled a 28-point season. Not bad. The Buffalo Sabres were able to trade just a third-round pick for him when he became an RFA that summer and inked him to a two-year extension. It seemed like a pretty good deal for Buffalo, but Beaulieu never hit there. His ice time dropped by four minutes, he was a non-factor on the power play, and he failed to hit even 10 points in 59 games. His role was slashed even further this past season and he was moved to Winnipeg for depth at the trade deadline for just a sixth-round pick.

The Jets didn’t qualify him for mostly salary cap reasons. He saw a little time with Jacob Trouba after the trade, but that’s not the ideal role for him. Beaulieu is a third pair player who should come rather cheap, and has an offensive lean to his game. He doesn’t need to play 20 minutes, but use him in soft situations and the left-shot blueliner could be a decent pick up.

Ben Hutton, Vancouver Canucks
A top four defenceman in Vancouver the past four seasons, there are two ways to look at the 26-year-old Hutton. Through one prism, he’s a player who saw 22:21 of ice time per game this season, with a good amount of usage on both the power play and penalty kill units. On the other, the analytically inclined crowd will point to his underlying numbers as a bit of a worry — when Hutton was on the ice Vancouver got just 44.23 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots this past season, which was better than only Erik Gudbranson among Canucks blueliners.

Hutton is, however, a decent defencemen as far as zone exits and entries with control go. He’s not a star here and isn’t a top pair blueliner by any measure, but for a third-pair guy to have that kind of confidence and ability isn’t a bad thing. And in an injury pinch, he’d be capable of moving up the lineup for a period without being an anchor.

Vancouver let him go because of the chance he’d walk out of arbitration a $4 million-plus player following a heavy-usage season. Debate amongst yourselves whether you’d prefer that or Tyler Myers at $7 million plus. Vancouver is reportedly still interested in bringing Hutton back at a reduced cost, but there will be a wider market for this left-shot defender.

Curtis Lazar, Calgary Flames
The 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Lazar had 20 goals and 41 points in 57 AHL games this past season and provided some organizational depth for the Flames, but with the likes of Dillon Dube, Alan Quine and Andrew Mangiapane getting priority in call-ups, he ultimately wasn’t worth it for the team to qualify.

Lazar won’t hit the potential he had with the Ottawa Senators (maybe McDonald’s ruined him?) but he’s worth bringing in for cheap to be a fourth-line NHLer/AHL leader next season.

Kerby Rychel, Calgary Flames
Very similar to Lazar, Rychel was the 19th overall pick in 2013 who has a good track record of AHL production (23 goals, 43 points in 57 games this past season), but minimal NHL experience. Only once has he gotten into more than five NHL games in a season.

A two-way contract is worth taking a flyer on here for someone. He has good enough pedigree and will be a help to at least someone’s AHL team, but again like Lazar, is a decent option to turn to for the fourth line in case of injury.

Brett Ritchie, Dallas Stars
Three seasons ago Ritchie posted 16 goals for the Stars, but has just 11 goals combined over the past two. His previous contract paid out a $1.75 million AAV, so that become too much for a Stars team hoping to spend some in free agency to upgrade the top six. But there’s an NHL player in Ritchie.

Here’s what we’re wondering: the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup win put “old school, big body hockey” back on the map and Boston’s presence in the Final drove home how important having depth is in your bottom six. Not only does Ritchie have that goal scoring upside, he’s six-foot-four, 220 pounds and was third among all Dallas forwards in hits with 126 despite only playing 53 games. He won’t get paid a ton, but the timing of this may end up working out OK in the end for Ritchie.

Joakim Ryan, San Jose Sharks
At one point he was Brent Burns’ defence partner, but Ryan couldn’t stick there and come playoff time he regularly saw less than 10 minutes a game. But some of his underlying numbers are at least intriguing for a 26-year-old left-shot defenceman to become a third-pair option. At 5-on-5, Ryan’s expected goals for percentage was 53.81 and the Sharks got 52.69 per cent of the shots when he was on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. He was sheltered for the most part, though, with 64.18 per cent of his starts coming in the offensive zone and doesn’t produce much in the way of offence.

Ryan Hartman, Dallas Stars
A first-round pick, 30th overall, by Chicago in 2013, it’s hard to believe Hartman was traded to Nashville for a first-round pick at the 2018 trade deadline. He managed just six points in 21 regular season games and three points in nine playoff games for the Predators the rest of the way and then this season he scored 10 times for them in 64 games. Hartman was dealt again at the 2019 trade deadline to Philadelphia in exchange for Wayne Simmonds, and then earlier this week the Flyers shipped him to Dallas for Tyler Pitlick, who is signed for one more season at $1 million. By then leaving Hartman unqualified, the Stars used the deal to make a little more cap space.

But we have to know, is Hartman even aware of all that’s happened to his NHL stock this week?

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