Free agency is just one day away, and a boatload of intriguing young names have just been added to the board.
As teams handed out their qualifying offers yesterday, more than a few talented young players wound up empty-handed, sending them out to the open market in search of a new employer.
These aren't all bargain basement candidates, either. There are some marquee names on this list, folks.
So, let's go through the top unqualified players who will now shop their services to the rest of the NHL.
Dylan Strome - Chicago Blackhawks
2021-22 Cap Hit: $3,000,000
The grand exodus in Chicago continues.
Does it make sense for the Blackhawks to not qualify Dylan Strome? Sure, I guess. This team is currently undergoing one of the most brutal scorched-earth rebuilds in recent memory, and Strome's standing as a good hockey player might get in the way of the club's desire to have one of the worst seasons in NHL history.
Should they have done it, though? God no.
Strome scored at a point-per-game pace through the entire second half of the season despite being yo-yo-ed in and out of the lineup and up and down all four lines for most of it. The 2021-22 campaign was a disaster for the Blackhawks organization and yet the former third-overall pick still managed to produce no matter what role he was given. That's extremely impressive, especially when accounting for his circumstances, and should ensure Strome catches on with another organization that is actually trying to win without issue.
Are there flaws in his game? Sure. Skating has always been the primary issue with Strome, even dating back to his pre-draft scouting reports. But the right team with the right development staff can certainly help iron out that wrinkle. Outside of some extended power skating sessions, Strome is a tantalizing free agent who could likely be had for pennies on the dollar.
All teams should take a hard look.
Sonny Milano - Anaheim Ducks
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,700,000
Yeah, this one doesn't make much sense.
It took Sonny Milano a long time to truly carve out a spot in the NHL. But the little guy undoubtedly did so last season, pairing particularly well with rookie phenom Trevor Zegras to give the Ducks some exciting offensive punch on an otherwise depleted roster.
Obviously, financials played the primary factor in this decision. Milano made $1.7 million last season, had arbitration rights heading into the summer, and just scored 34 points in 66 games for a bad team. His case was solid. And if both sides elected to head down that route, the Ducks could've be saddled with a far higher number than they'd be comfortable paying the 26-year-old.
So, they opted to cut him loose.
It doesn't mean the door is closed on a reunion, of course. Milano finally found some consistency in Anaheim after bouncing around early in his career and seemed to enjoy playing there. But other teams will likely be interested, too.
Ilya Samsonov - Washington Capitals
2021-22 Cap Hit: $2,000,000
This one is surprising until it's not.
On the surface, Samsonov is an intriguing asset -- a 25-year-old former first-round pick with plenty of room to grow and an outstanding track record from his time in the KHL.
Dig even a little deeper, though, and it's understandable why the Capitals opted to move on.
Samsonov has struggled over the past two seasons, posting a .902 save percentage in the pandemic-shortened 2021 campaign before bottoming out last season with a .896. He returned to form somewhat in five playoff appearances versus the Florida Panthers, posting a .912 save percentage and clearly looking like a better option than fellow tandem mate, Vitek Vanecek. But with how pricey his qualifying offer was going to be coupled with the belief that the Capitals are the favorites to sign Darcy Kuemper once the market opens, letting Samsonov go was the logical move.
So, another goaltender hits a suddenly-shallow free-agent market. Samsonov is a project in need of some tweaks. But the raw skill is there to possibly make him a value add in the right environment.
*cough* Toronto Maple Leafs *cough*
Danton Heinen - Pittsburgh Penguins
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,100,000
Heinen was great in Pittsburgh. As a middle-six winger making a smidge over $1 million, the 26-year-old racked up 18 goals and 33 points while logging under 13 minutes per game with no special teams usage and provided precisely the type of bargain value a contending team needs to find.
The combination of his qualifying offer and potential arbitration award, however, made walking away a tough but necessary decision for the Penguins, who have been gobbling up cap space like it's a Mandarin buffet in recent days.
(Canadian readers will get that reference)
It's unlikely that Heinen's ask will be pricey on the open market. And for a team in practically the same situation as Pittsburgh last season -- capped-out and contending thanks to its high-paid stars -- he could be the perfect add, and possibly even flourish with more usage.
Ryan Donato - Seattle Kraken
2021-22 Cap Hit: $750,000
Does anyone ever really understand what the Seattle Kraken are doing?
Look, is Donato an incredible hockey player? No. There are many options out there that are far better. But the 26-year-old was still projected to be a cheap depth winger who just chipped in 16 goals for a team that supposedly tried its darnedest to be bad last season.
Why just walk away from that?
Unless the Kraken are poised to make a major splash (pun intended) in free agency tomorrow and need every morsel of cap space they can get, cutting Donato loose makes little sense. They need bodies to play for them, and Donato proved he could do that and more. It's not as if his arbitration case would have been impeccable, either. Was Donato's reward really going to be an anchor (pun intended again) on the Kraken's cap?
Perhaps the two sides are working on a new deal right now at an affordable rate in order to avoid that messy path altogether. Now, THAT would make sense. But as of now, this is somewhat head-scratching.
Haydn Fleury - Seattle Kraken
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,300,000
Now, this makes slightly more sense. Only slightly, though.
Haydn Fleury is a former top-10 pick. You'd think that there would still be some potential there, given his draft pedigree and raw tools. But Fleury has basically never showed what made him get picked so high at the NHL level, falling out of favor in Carolina and, despite being plucked in the expansion draft by the GM who drafted him, ultimately doing the same in Seattle.
Only, there's one slight anomoly on Fleury's resume that might offer hope to an inquiring team.
After being dealt to the Ducks at the 2021 trade deadline, Fleury spent the final 12 games of the season logging nearly 21 minutes in the club's top-four. In those 12 games, Fleury racked up a respectable two goals and three points for a bad Ducks squad, all while generating a 50.49 percent share of the expected goals and a 50.32 percent share of the scoring chances in his even-strength usage, despite being saddled with a nearly-unthinkable 94.5 PDO.
For one brief stretch in the first consistent usage of his career, Fleury flourished on a basement-dwelling team. It's a tiny sample size and perhaps doesn't mean much. But the Ducks were the first team to truly throw Fleury in the deep end and see if he could float. Turns out, at least on paper, he did.
At a near-league-minimum rate, the 25-year-old could be a fine value add.
Ondrej Kase - Toronto Maple Leafs
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,250,000
The door is still open for the Leafs and Kase to work out a deal, so this situation is a tad different than the others. But injuries are just so risky here.
Kase performs well whenever he steps on the ice, providing value as a versatile winger capable of playing up and down the lineup while also holding his own as a penalty killer. But after suffering yet another concussion last season and missing time before that to various additional ailments, the risk is about as high as it gets for any team looking to make an investment.
Right now, the priority should be ensuring that Kase's post-hockey career is healthy and safe. If that means he sits out a year or steps away altogether, it might be for the best -- and certainly won't be due to a lack of ability.
Evgeny Svechnikov - Winnipeg Jets
2021-22 Cap Hit: $750,000
On the surface, Svechnikov's numbers do not inspire confidence. A mere seven goals and 19 points in 72 games do not leap off the page in any way shape or form. But the former top-10 pick has some intriguing tools to work with and looked quite good last season as a possession-driving, defensively responsible winger who could do more with some added ice time.
Perhaps the Jets were scared of his potential arbitration reward. But given Svechnikov's lackluster box score stats, it's doubtful it would've been egregious.
Nevertheless, some team will take a chance on Svechnikov this summer as a bargain basement add and could be rewarded in spades.