Monday at 5 p.m. ET brought the deadline to qualify restricted free agents, and those left without a qualifying offer would instead become unrestricted free agents when the market opens at noon ET on Wednesday.
There are always a collection of players left unqualified, but while most of them can be replacement level or below, every so often there are a few who raise an eyebrow and have a wisp of potential that will attract suitors. And with the way the salary cap has remained flat throughout the pandemic, the NHL's middle-class, so to speak, has been pinched somewhat, making it harder for some teams to commit a couple million dollars (or even less) to an RFA-aged player. They may also be afraid of what a potential arbitration award could do to their overall cap picture.
This year's list of unqualified RFAs has some interesting names for sure. Winnipeg's Evgeny Svechnikov showed he can play in the league full-time this season and scored seven goals for the Jets, but not enough to stay in their plans. In Colorado, Nicolas Aube-Kubel was a very useful bottom-six forward and now suddenly the Cup winner will be available to anyone looking to copy some of what the Avs did.
And there are even more interesting and, perhaps, impactful players than that.
The following players aren't the type likely to crack Luke Fox's list of the top 12 UFAs on the market, and they won't command seven-year term or cap-altering dollars. But these are players who have shown a flash and have the potential to add something useful to winning teams next season. And they could, possibly, be had at a value rate.
Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks
Here you have a 25-year-old centre coming off a 22-goal, 48-point season in 69 games whose qualifying offer would have amounted to $3.6 million. Not a bad rate, considering Chicago isn't cap-strapped anyway and heading down a rebuild.
The decision to not qualify Strome is a confounding one. It's understandable if he didn't fit into whatever the Hawks' plans are, given they just traded away a 41-goal scoring 24-year-old for a disappointing return, and gave up on a 21-year-old centre they drafted third overall three years ago. But to just let Strome walk for nothing, now, instead of working the market for another year is a head-scratcher.
Strome will be a target on the market for anyone looking at a second- or even third-line centre with some offence to his game. Finding the right fit is the key here because Strome won't be a permanent line-driver himself, but wins faceoffs, can play the power play and could be a great value add somewhere.
Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks
When Kubalik broke into the NHL as a rookie in 2019-20 he shot out of a cannon, scored 30 goals in 68 games, and was a Calder Trophy finalist with Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar. Kubalik also had a 19.1 shooting percentage that season, a rate he hasn't touched in the two years since (10.9 and 9.3, respectively, in the past two years).
This past season Kubalik managed 15 goals in 78 games and his production decreased for a second straight season. His underlying numbers aren't too friendly either, so there's a measure of buyer beware here. But still, this player is two years removed from scoring 26 times at even strength and, if you have the cap and roster space to spare, he's worth taking a flyer on as someone who could hit again if surrounded by offence drivers.
Danton Heinen, Pittsburgh Penguins
With Boston, Anaheim and Pittsburgh Heinen has tracked to be something just shy of a 20-goal scorer and 30-plus point-getter. But 2021-22 was his best season yet and, likely, could have led him to a healthy arbitration award the Penguins weren't comfortable going to.
Heinen is a productive middle-six winger capable of playing higher up in the lineup for stretches and a complementary piece who gets generates offence. This is the second year in a row that Heinen did not receive a qualifying offer after the Ducks didn't elect to do so following the conclusion of a $2.8 million AAV contract in 2021. Last summer he signed with Pittsburgh for $1.1 million.
Ondrej Kase, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kase just leaves you aching for a breakout, injury-free season. But while his underlying numbers always show a player who could be on the cusp of something, the health side has been Kase's biggest concern. This is a player who seems to attract the biggest hits and has played more than 55 games just once in his six NHL seasons -- that was back in 2017-18.
This past season with the Leafs Kase played 50 games and was sixth on the team in goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and seventh by points. Healthy, Kase could be a complementary top-six winger at best, a productive third-liner at worst. He made $1.25 million on a one-year deal signed with Toronto last off-season after the Bruins chose not to send him a qualifying offer either. There's a good player here, but how often will he be available to you?
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals
Caps GM Brian MacLellan made no bones about his plan to shake up the goalies this off-season. Step 1 was trading RFA Vitek Vanecek to the Devils for a couple of draft picks. "We still got some work to do to fill out our goaltending duo and some further decisions to make,” the GM said after that move.
Step 2, then, was to not give his other goalie, Ilya Samsonov, a $2.4 million qualifying offer. One has to wonder if Darcy Kuemper is the target to move forward with when he hits free agency on Wednesday.
Samsonov now adds an unexpected option to the slimming goalie market, a 25-year-old who the Capitals invested a first-round pick in seven years ago. Promise and potential could be mined here, a nice idea to try and save a few bucks on an upside gamble at the position. But Samsonov has struggled the past two seasons, his .898 save percentage ranking 52nd among 55 goalies who played at least 2,000 minutes.
Sonny Milano, Anaheim Ducks
Trevor Zegras' most popular running mate hits the open market and has interesting appeal. A skilled player, who has shown he can play well with other skilled players, Milano finished with 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games and had some good per-minute measures this past season. Fifth by points per 60 minutes (5-on-5) on the Ducks, and fourth by assists per 60 among those who played at least half the season.
Milano has teased this potential for a few years and across two organizations that chose a different direction now. The Blue Jackets chose Milano 16th overall in 2014 and his best season with them was a 14-goal effort in 2017-18 before they traded him to the Ducks for Devin Shore at the 2020 deadline.