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Browsing the RFA list for bargains

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Finding players some other team can’t afford, but the Leafs can, isn’t easy.

Arizona Coyotes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Evan Rodrigues situation is clear: He got a big arbitration award a year ago that kicked up his salary to a point that, in this new flat-cap world, no one wants to pay. He’s on his third NHL team because of it. The RFA rules for Qualifying Offers mean his offer has to be his current $2 million salary, and he’s not going to get that deal. The Leafs can either get him to agree to something more in keeping with his value, or he can become a free agent, and see who bids the highest for him. He’s not the only player in that situation, either.

In the past, it’s been more common for these mistakes to just get amplified until you’re the Ottawa Senators inexplicably qualifying Cody Ceci at a big overpay just to keep rights to him. They aren’t the first team to have just done that, and then looked for a way to get out from under the offer they never needed to make. A lot of what happens in the NHL can be described as combinations of endowment bias and the sunk cost fallacy, and the Ceci situation looked like that to me. The insiders say that’s about to change.

The flat salary cap is focusing minds, and perhaps the rapid firings of a lot GMs who signed foolish contracts is also playing a role, but Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman have discussed more than once players they think won’t get qualified because the offer will be too high. A lot of those players will get their rights traded, just like Rodrigues, to a team that might have more luck negotiating a more reasonable contract, but it might be where the bargain players are hiding this season, disguised by a pending big payday that might never happen.

However, a bargain is only a bargain if you can afford to buy it, and the Leafs aren’t overflowing in cap space. They might find someone looking for a one-year deal to prove themselves with that will make their cap hits lower than the value they return, but most of these players are not going to happily sign a minimum salary deal just because that makes you Armchair GM roster work out. The Leafs can’t afford most of the RFAs that might become available even at a reduced amount.

The Qualifying offer, due to all expiring RFAs on October 6 is calculated on the base salary that excludes signing bonuses, and once the player is paid over $1 million the offer equals the previous salary. The new CBA caps that QO at 120% of the previous contract’s AAV, but did not make that retroactive, so the host of RFAs who signed deals recently with back-loaded contracts to get a huge QO on exit will still get that feature. But that feature is a bug when you guessed wrong about your value, and that’s exactly why there are rumours about Brock Boeser being on the market now, when his deal doesn’t even expire until 2023. There are players expiring this offseason whose QOs are also alarming to GMs, and some of them might face the same fate as Rodrigues. A smart team asks: What’s out there to be had?

Topping the list of expiring RFA salaries is Matt Murray with $3.750 million. Pittsburgh started auctioning off Murray and fellow RFA Tristan Jarry (QO of $735,000) in a very public way. That’s got two benefits: It drives the price up and it makes them both think hard about what they want to sign for. So far, that hasn’t borne fruit, and the serious rumours say it’s Murray the Penguins want to move.

All of this early talk from Jim Rutherford about his goalie problem seems to be disguising that he has a Murray problem that he will solve the same way he did his Rodrigues problem, he just needs to find someone who believes that this year wasn’t the real Murray. I don’t think Dubas will bite on this hook from Rutherford.

Next on the list is two Buffalo players Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour. They’re at $3.75 and $3.525 million respectively, and both have higher salaries in their final year upping this QO now due. The GM who signed those deals is long gone.

Reinhart’s deal isn’t terrible, and if he were just a tiny bit better, and exactly the 2C you’d want behind Jack Eichel, a new deal at around $4 or $5 million would be fine. Now that the Sabres have Eric Staal, they either think Reinhart is a winger worth keeping or they think he might be a 3C for someone who will give them assets to take his salary off their hands.

Montour is very much rumoured to be one of the players to go unqualified. He’s not worth his QO, and he, like Rodrigues, would be smart to recognize that and make a deal. Sometimes players take a long time to give up the bird in the hand when they’re on an inflated salary track, and I understand that, but if Buffalo moves on from Montour, he’ll be on his third team at 26, with free agency around the corner and likely another move to go along with his first UFA contract.

Montour’s biggest recommendation as a potential bargain signing is that he’s a right-shooting defender who needs to prove himself. He was drafted in the second round by the Ducks, and was a highly touted prospect of theirs. He was very good in the AHL, but his points there didn’t translate to the NHL. He’s coming off his worst season of the three full NHL seasons he’s played, and he seems to be about a replacement-level third pairing player who had one very good season in Anaheim.

He needs to find a team that believes in that Anaheim season, or else he needs to go the cheap show-me deal route and try to make everyone believe in it.

Anthony Mantha comes next with $3.3 million as his QO. He’s a really interesting player because he’s one of the best players on the Red Wings. He wouldn’t be the best player on most other teams, but he’d have better linemates. Mantha is not overpaid at that amount, or at the $5 million to $6 million deal he’s likely due, but at 25, the Red Wings need to decide if he’s part of their future or if he’s ripe to bring them futures in a trade. They don’t have to trade him, so they won’t sell him cheap. He’d be an ideal player for teams already paying $5 million to forwards 10 years older, so he’s not the sort of bargain the Leafs should be searching for.

Andre Burakovsky has a QO due of $3.25 million. He’s a versatile middle-six player on a team with no cap problems, so I don’t see him doing anything but signing a deal with the Avs.

Ryan Strome is due at least $3.2 million, and the Rangers seem to like him fine. They’re rumoured to be shopping some other pending RFA instead.

Nikita Zadorov is due an astonishing $3.2 million. I don’t think he’s worth half that, and he’s basically a slightly better Roman Polak, but the Avs seem to want someone to deliver hits and not much else, so I they’ll keep overpaying him for a few more years. He has arbitration rights so he’ll get some kind of raise.

Max Domi is receiving the negotiation via the media treatment in Montréal, but he seems able to play the game himself. His QO is $2.9 million and his eventual contract amount is going to be a totally reasonable big raise. But he had a less than excellent playoffs, and his fortunes have always risen and fallen with his shooting %. He’s not in the Leafs’ price range, even if they wanted him, but Bergevin getting mad that his perfectly fine player isn’t better than he is will never not be funny.

Andreas Athanasiou, traded to Edmonton, has a QO due of $3 million. Obviously Ken Holland liked his former player from Detroit, and Edmonton needs forwards badly, but there seems to be some buyer’s remorse in Edmonton. Does that feeling extend to Holland? That’s not clear, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy expressed in the prospect of paying Athanasiou over $3 million, considering the production of Tyler Ennis on a cheap deal. He might get the Rodrigues trade treatment. Athanasiou looks bad by sophisticated models, GF% or just about any measure you like, so I’d take a hard pass on him at any price.

Chris Tierney was a depth player in San Jose, who was promoted to a middle-six role he wasn’t really all that good at. On the Ottawa Senators, he played even more, and seemed at least competent on one of the worst teams these last two years. His QO is $2.975 million, and with arbitration rights and 17 minutes played per game, he’s going to get a raise. If the Senators don’t keep him, Josh Norris might be their 1C. They have heaps of cap space, so I expect he’ll get signed and traded at the deadline.

Ryan Pulock is a player I’d love to see on the Leafs, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance though. His QO is $2.65 million, and he’s a stone-cold bargain at that price. With arbitration rights and his ice time, he’ll get a big raise, and while the Islanders look cap-strapped, it’s fixable. Fantasies about scooping a player out from under Lou while he’s not paying attention are bound to go unfulfilled.

Radek Faksa is a middle-six forward who is injured or he’d be in the Stanley Cup Final. He’s had a good amount of points already, and that’s going to have a happy impact on his eventual contract. His QO is $2.4 million, and he’s due a raise now. I don’t see Dallas parting ways with him.

Devin Shore is also due a $2.4 million offer, and he’s in a precarious position. He came to Columbus at the deadline, played in six games and then only two playoff games. They aren’t ripe to want to re-sign him at his QO amount, and a player on his third team in two years is usually looking for a major reset to his career. He has arbitration rights, so I don’t see Columbus with any motivation to even issue the qualifying offer. Shore is a career replacement-level player who has no particular offensive or defensive value. He’s worth a minimum salary.

Troy Stecher is due $2.325 million and is the coveted right-shooting defender. He’s played for Vancouver since exiting the NCAA, and they have very little spent on defence at the moment. Stecher has arbitration rights and the Canucks have to re-sign UFA Chris Tanev, their other righty. Stecher seems totally indistinguishable to Justin Holl, and will likely end up paid more by the Canucks since he’s a serviceable player. Spending assets for him seems wasteful.

Josh Anderson is due $2.1 million from Columbus, and they want him, but aren’t sure they can afford him, and there’s a lot of trade buzz around him already. He never did come back in the playoffs, and his status after shoulder surgery is a question as well, but he’s out of the Leafs’ price range unless something really unusual goes down in the next week.

Matthew Benning is due $2 million and he is another right-shot defender who might be a small improvement on Holl. It’s hard to be certain how much of one, but likely not enough to really warrant a big increase in pay. He had a bad year for points, and won’t get a lot of traction in arbitration, so his future largely depends on what the Oilers do with Adam Larsson. Do they trade him? Do they keep him? Do they keep their options open on him to move him at the deadline? If they do trade Larsson now, they’ll need Benning as a little insulation for prospect Ethan Bear. I wouldn’t spend assets to get him, since he’s just not cheap enough or good enough to be worth it.

Evan Rodrigues fits in here, and the Leafs have already said they will negotiate. Once QOs are due though, Rodrigues will be a UFA if he hasn’t agreed to something reasonable.

Normally, once you get below $2 million, teams just automatically issue the QO, negotiate, and either make a deal or accept arbitration awards with good grace at the time. Players who went to arbitration often end up traded in training camp or at the deadline. But these aren’t normal times, and there are more teams looking to shed salary, and it might be that $500,000 or so on a depth player is where they’re forced to cut.

Mark Jankowski is due $1.75 million. With seven points this season, he has to be one of the players the Flames are questioning the value of keeping. If they don’t qualify him, he’d likely get a deal somewhere as a UFA based on draft position, but he looks unlikely to return more than he’s paid.

Anthony Duclair is due a bargain $1.65 million as an offer. He found his game again in Ottawa, and they will re-sign him and then decide if he’s part of the future or a trade chip. He might go to arbitration, but even so, given their situation and ability to get assets in trade, they’ll likely be okay with that.

Connor Brown is due only $1.6 million since part of his salary was signing bonus. Ottawa will certainly sign him, maybe even just let it go to arbitration, since they likely plan to move him before the deadline. Compared to most players in his salary range, he’s a superstar. But on a better team, he won’t get the ice time he did in Ottawa.

MacKenzie Weegar is a right-shooting defender who has played on the left lately. Due a paltry $1.6 million, he gradually became Florida’s second most used defender this season as he shifted onto a pairing with Aaron Eklad. They have no reason to not re-sign their homegrown talent other than their excess spent on players they didn’t use as much, but if he goes to arbitration, his ice time will get him a very big raise. It makes more sense that Florida’s new GM will move on from Mike Matheson (and so it came to pass) or Anton Stralman than it does he’ll trade the Leafs this player who still might end up a bit underpaid.

Drake Caggiula is due $1.5 million, and I’ve never been clear about the difference between him and, say, Nic Petan other than that Petan is likely better. Three points in the surprise playoffs for Chicago may have got him another contract in the “why are you here” range of double minimum salary without being double the value. Hard pass.

Vinnie Hinostroza is due $1.5 million, and he’s the real reason why I included the cheaper players here. On any other team, he’s a no-brainer re-signing, but he’s in Arizona at 26 with arbitration rights, and they are selling everything include chipping the ice into cubes and bagging it up. He’s not much of a personal scorer, but he has an excellent all-around depth game, and he’s exactly what the Leafs need as a depth player who can float up to the third line and be very serviceable. As long as you don’t want to buy UFA years, and only want him on a one-year deal, he should be willing to just take the QO if the team he’s with is not Arizona. But who knows, maybe he loves it there. I’d love to have him on the Leafs, though.

Jake Virtanen is another player who isn’t living up to his draft position, and his team might be overacting to that. He’s only due $1.4 million on a QO, and has the points and ice time to get a substantial raise in arbitration, but the mistake-prone Canucks seem to have so many low-quality forwards earning over $3 million, they’ve got a mild cap crunch now, with a massive one looming next offseason. He should be a decent third liner on most teams, but arbitration will overpay him. Most players won’t jump off that track until they’re forced off it, like Cody Ceci, so I assume he’ll be a couple more years before the recalibration happens.

Below Virtanen in size of QO amounts due are over 200 players coming off ELCs or contracts below $1.5 million. Their QO won’t scare teams, but they might be available as cheap depth or in trade when the arbitration hearing goes bad. There isn’t likely to be anyone in this range that can be signed for less than they’re really worth, however, since cheap depth is usually cheap for a reason and the good players coming off ELCs almost never change teams unless it’s “change of scenery” time.

Jordan Greenway in Minnesota, Haydn Fleury in Carolina and Ilya Lyubushkin in Arizona might all be players whose teams aren’t thrilled with them for various reasons, and there’s many more where they came from in the lower ranks of the list. They aren’t really bargains though, more just good value, but they might be worth browsing at length some other day.