It’s a rarity that a top-four defenseman is left without a qualifying offer, but Ben Hutton is not your typical top-four defender.
But that’s partly because on most teams, he wouldn’t be getting 22 minutes a night. Hutton is one of nearly 150 players that were left unsigned by their NHL clubs once the qualifying offer deadline hit on Tuesday, with players who weren’t extended becoming unrestricted free agents next week. Canucks GM Jim Benning told The Province that the Canucks are still trying to figure out a new deal with the pending unrestricted free agent, whom Vancouver still own the rights to until the free agent bonanza begins on July 1.
With Hutton holding arbitration rights, the Canucks could have been stuck with a player that would have been awarded a $4 million deal for next season, eating up a portion of the team’s $17 million in cap space. Hutton sat behind Alex Edler in ice time by a defenseman on the Canucks, and his 20 points were the best since putting up 25 as a rookie, but the arrival of star rookie Quinn Hughes would likely push Hutton to a third-pairing spot. The Canucks are still in rebuild mode and need to be careful when it comes to big contracts.
If the Canucks don’t re-sign him, Hutton would have the luxury of being a part of a weak defensive UFA class that will likely result in overpayment by GMs around the league. He’s a big puck-moving defender that could fight to stay in the top four of a franchise needing a bit of defensive stability and there will be plenty of suitors this summer that could offer him a respectable $3-3.5 million per year.
Hutton might be the biggest name that wasn’t given a qualifying offer, but there are some good value players that will hit the market this summer. Let’s look at the best of the rest:
Nathan Beaulieu, D, 26 (Winnipeg)
Beaulieu has bounced around three NHL teams over the past three seasons and despite a promising start with Montreal, the team that made him a first-round pick in 2011 (17th overall), he struggled to be effective on a consistent basis. When it comes to Beaulieu, his role is nothing more than a third-pairing defender. He filled a need in Winnipeg in a mid-season trade with Josh Morrissey out of the lineup, and Beaulieu even spent some time with Jacob Trouba in a prominent role. Beaulieau is valuable in a role that sees him play 16-18 minutes and he has the talent to stick in the NHL.
Nick Cousins, C/LW, 25 (Arizona)
A career-high of 27 points isn’t going to impress anyone, but Cousins is a capable fourth-liner with two-way upside and the capability to annoy the heck out of your best players. Cousins had a boost in ice time in Arizona this year and saw significant improvement in his play while also finding a way to draw penalties often, tying for second on the Coyotes with 24. Cousins’ explosive offensive numbers didn’t translate well from junior to the NHL but if you need a bottom-six forward with experience at center and on the wing that forces giveaways and can handle himself well in front of the net, he’s worth a shot.
Brendan Leipsic, LW, 25 (Los Angeles)
Leipsic was once a dominant junior hockey player. But that was a long time ago, and five NHL organizations later, he finds himself on the outside looking in. Leipsic had 23 points in 62 games with Los Angeles and Vancouver while playing in a rather limited role, but he showed he can be a frustration to his opponents and his defensive play has steadily improved over the past few years. Leipsic proved himself as an aggressive, energetic depth guy that has the heart to be an everyday guy, but he doesn’t have the scoring ability to move up higher in the lineup. A team needing flexibility on their fourth line from a guy with experience at all forward positions can get him at good value.
Pontus Aberg, RW, 25 (Minnesota)
You can do a lot worse than signing a guy like Aberg, who looked rather decent in 37 games with Anaheim, totaling 11 goals and 19 points on a team destined for doom. Aberg was less effective in Minnesota, scoring one goal and six points in 22 games, but he saw his ice did dip by nearly three minutes and his usage was questionable. Aberg is the type of guy that you’d love in your bottom six: he’s got speed, can play both wings and he knows how to score at a solid rate while averaging close to two shots per game in 2018-19. Aberg is the definition of a low-risk, high-reward forward.
Fredrik Claesson, D, 26 (NY Rangers)
Look, we’re not talking about the best of the best here. But surely, Claesson has to be considered for a spot somewhere next season, right? Claesson may be a depth defender, but he fills that role well. He doesn’t take many penalties, he’s a low-risk option you can play in a sixth or seventh spot and won’t hurt your team due to his solid shutdown play. Claesson, who was limited to just 37 games due to a shoulder injury and time spent in the press box, isn’t going to put points on the board, but a team looking for further depth on their back end and a sound penalty killer could get him for under $1 million.
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