One down, three to go. The Pittsburgh Penguins began Thursday with four restricted free agents but will begin Friday with only three hopeful players who are supposed to have some leverage per the NHL CBA but in reality have none. Zach Aston-Reese, Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger find themselves in the murky waters of restricted free agency and at the mercy of their NHL team.
Thursday, Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola signed a one-year, $850,000 deal. Riikola, 25, played 37 NHL games last season which was his first in North America. With limited playing time and production but surprising potential, both sides were happy to get a deal done quickly.
This week, sources expressed the same hope for Aston-Reese and Pettersson but negotiations had not begun as of Wednesday.
Marcus Pettersson Projection: Two-years, $1.8 million AAV ($3.6 million total)
Pettersson, 23, was acquired in December for the offensively minded winger Daniel Sprong. In a twist, Pettersson piled up more points with the Penguins than Sprong did with Anaheim. Pettersson also played a more critical role as a third pairing anchor as Sprong saw pressbox time and his ice time become limited.
Based on the RFA schedule, offer sheets from opposing teams between $1.3 million and $2.11 million are valued at a third-round pick compensation if the player’s team does not match the tender. Pettersson may fall in the Jamie Oleksiak category. Last summer, the Penguins signed Oleksiak to a three-year contract with a $2.1 million average annual value.
Oleksiak was older and had a little more power by being arbitration eligible. Pettersson and Oleksiak were otherwise similar in terms of standing, the potential for good, and the potential to regress.
Pettersson’s regular season work began to wane in the final two weeks and the playoffs. He was beaten several times by the New York Islanders in Round One, and opponents outmuscled him late in the season, too. He’s only 23 and still developing his NHL game; a long term deal doesn’t fit this situation for either party.
Zach Aston-Reese Projection: One-year, $1 million
If a rival team tenders an offer sheet under $1.3 million, they would not owe the Pittsburgh Penguins compensation. Aston-Reese’s current value resides in that range as a fourth line winger and it will be interesting to see if his camp pushes for a deal above the $1.3 threshold based on his potential.
It seems the injury bug has a sadistic bite for the player about to enter his third NHL season. In each season, Aston-Reese had a stretch in which he gained momentum, looked as if he might break into the Penguins top-nine permanently but then was immediately injured. This season, Aston-Reese was on a tear. From Dec. 12 to Jan. 8, Aston-Reese posted eight points in 14 games. He earned playing time as the defensively responsible and physical component of the Evgeni Malkin line, but then broke his hand in the aftermath of the fight on Jan. 8.
Overall, Aston-Reese, 24, scored 17 points (8g, 9a) in 43 games but never got his legs moving late in the season after he returned from another injury.
The flashes have been there. The undrafted free agent could have a bright future but he also wouldn’t be the first Penguins prospect to be served up as the main course to the injury bug (looking at you, Beau Bennett).
A guess here is that a short deal benefits the player. Even if he is ravaged by injuries next season, he’ll most likely still be worth $1 million next summer, too. He could bet on himself with a short deal and come to the table next year with far more leverage, especially if things click with Malkin.
Teddy Blueger Projection: One-year, $750,000
Blueger, 24, could be an exciting player for the Pittsburgh Penguins. His speed and tenacity were immediately evident. As a center, he even flashed a little bit of offense. He scored 10 points (6g, 4a) in 28 games which were his first in the NHL.
Blueger could be part of the revitalization of the Penguins as an energy line player. He projects as the fourth line center but is not yet proven, and that will work against him in any contract negotiations.
Blueger had to wait for nearly three years to get the call to the NHL and a more abundant payday and some job security may be his but not yet.