NHL's unqualified free agent market becoming consistent source of value

Dylan Strome went unqualified by Chicago after scoring a career-best 22 goals in 69 games last NHL season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Dylan Strome went unqualified by Chicago after scoring a career-best 22 goals in 69 games last NHL season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As NHL training camps open around the league, there are a number of good players that still do not have contracts. Some of these players have already accepted professional tryout contracts (PTOs), while some are waiting to see what opportunities, if any, will emerge as camps and the preseason move along.

One subsection of free agents we have seen some recent action with is unqualified free agents. Those are players that entered the offseason as restricted free agents, but did not receive a qualifying offer, which makes them unrestricted free agents, free to sign anywhere. A qualifying offer is an official Standard Player Contract (SPC) offer which shall be one year in length, and which can be subject to salary arbitration should the player be eligible. If a player gets a qualifying offer and rejects it, their rights are still retained by the team and the player is still an RFA. When you qualify an RFA, the offer the player can sign is, at minimum, the same amount of money as their base salary from the previous season.

In most cases, teams retain their restricted free agents. These are players in their 20s and since they can still be qualified in the first place, they are usually younger players that the organization has directly drafted and developed, so letting them go completely free is not exactly ideal.

Over the past few offseasons, some decent value has been found in this market. Players such as Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Justin Schultz, Ryan Hartman and Dylan DeMelo have all hit free agency courtesy of this mechanism. It is a good way for teams to find value on talented players that are likely in need of a fresh start. In some cases, a player goes unqualified and signs for less with the team that allowed them to hit the open market — such as Schultz and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But in recent years, it has felt like we have seen more unqualified RFAs. Perhaps it is because some notable names have made the list, giving it a bit more attention. This summer alone, all of Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Ondrej Kase, Sonny Milano and Ilya Samsonov hit the UFA market by not being qualified.

Some have blamed the flat salary cap for squeezing good players off rosters as teams have little wiggle room to maneuver. There is some logic to that, especially as teams pay their top players huge salaries that take up huge percentages of the cap (see the recent Nathan MacKinnon extension as an example).

With top players getting paid so much, naturally it’s going to be felt elsewhere and usually that’s toward the middle/bottom of the roster. Either you are a star getting paid, a really good player making good money, on a bargain-bin contract or an entry-level deal. A lot of these unqualified players don’t fit in any of those buckets, instead falling somewhere between being a really good player and a player on an entry-level contract, and their salaries convince teams to save money and roll the dice on either cheaper signings or cheaper players they can promote within their organization.

When we look at the unqualified market from before COVID and the flat cap to now, though, we can see the numbers have not necessarily spiked or really trended up drastically.

*Data courtesy of CapFriendly
*Data courtesy of CapFriendly

So what does this tell us about the unqualified market? The first is that it’s pretty steady, whether the salary cap is rising or not. Teams will naturally always pinch pennies where possible but a flat cap is not significantly changing this market. The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, could have easily qualified Strome and Kubalik. They were not financially constrained due to the salary cap and it wasn’t the sticking point in their decision.

Often what we are really seeing is players that have plateaued and an organization that would rather roll the dice on a different player to see what they can do instead. It can definitely lead to cases of the grass not always being greener on the other side as some of these players are legitimate NHLers — Duclair just had a 31-goal campaign.

In some cases, an organization might even think a player is good and doesn’t necessarily want to lose them, but they also don’t want to pay them their qualifying offer. But that’s been happening since well before the salary cap went flat.

If anything here, we should be asking why some of these players aren’t being moved proactively. Teams like Anaheim and Chicago were well out of the playoff hunt by the trade deadline last season, kept reasonable players through to the end of the season, did not qualify them, and ultimately got nothing in return. Was there no deal to be had there? Is a late lottery-ticket draft pick not better than nothing?

If recent trends are any indication, we’ll steadily see a decent market of unqualified players hit free agency, even as the salary cap eventually starts rising again (maybe jersey ads will help with that).

Should we see the market change, it might be teams proactively moving players they are not going to qualify at the trade deadline. Again, something is better than nothing. At the same time, we could see buyers actively try to target players that project to not get qualified. Buying at the trade deadline is always a premium so if you can get a productive NHLer, why not see if you can add depth at a reasonable cost?

In the meantime, value finds will always be available in the free agent market. The unqualified market is helping add to that group as we steadily see solid players get added to the UFA market each summer.

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