Money will be tight around the NHL again this summer. The flat salary cap figures to be a fixture until 2024, give or take a year, and RFAs will bear the brunt of the cap-strapped teams, lack of suitors, and restricted free agency rules, which should be more appropriately termed restrictive. The Pittsburgh Penguins have five RFAs, and not all will be back.
Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, Mark Jankowski, Kasper Bjorkqvist, and Radim Zohorna are remaining RFAs.
A sixth restricted free agent, Finnish goalie Emil Larmi surely seemed to indicate he was done with the North American game, for now, in a recent Instagram post that said goodbye.
So, who will get a contract, and whose bus ticket will the Penguins punch? There is also a third option. The team can non-qualify a player, which means the Penguins lose exclusive rights the player can re-sign with the team. To qualify a player making less than $1 million, the team must up his salary by 5%.
(Players making less than $660,000 must get a 10% raise. Teams can qualify players making more than $1 million at 100% salary).
Jankowski would be a prime player to non-tender but to bring back as depth on a $700,000 contract, but we’ll get to him and the others another day.
No, the 2021 RFA class won’t be holding a ceremony, but it includes notables Blueger and Aston-Reese are the only NHL regulars to whom the Penguins will own the rights.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Situation
Perhaps we’re assuming that the Seattle Kraken will not select Blueger on July 21. The Pittsburgh Penguins fourth-line center helped create an invaluable grind line that shut down opponents’ top lines and chipped in a few goals.
Until the Penguins acquired Jeff Carter, Blueger was a third-line center which could complicate contract discussions.
Should Blueger be paid closer to third-line center money or fourth?
Since the RFA process heavily favors the team, Blueger figures to be paid like a highly sought fourth-liner. That usually means $2 million, give or take a few hundred thousand either way.
Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, right? Wrong.
In the last few seasons, including the 2020 pandemic, flat-cap offseason, a few bottom-six centers got paid pretty well. Certainly enough to throw the scale out of whack.
First, Blueger’s tale of the tape. The 26-year-old center will enter his third full NHL season in 2021-22. Last season, he set a career-high with .5 points-per-game and tied his career-high with 22 points (7-15-22) in just 43 games. He was a plus-10, averaged 14:51 of ice time, and improved on the faceoff dot but only 48.7%.
The stat to circle is the plus-10. Yes, there are far more in-depth metrics to measure a player’s on-ice value, but Blueger was frequently against the best centers in the NHL, and his line scored more goals. Sometimes simple tells the story, too, and that plus-10 speaks volumes.
Complicating and Comparable Contracts:
*Last offseason, the Dallas Stars gave Radek Faksa, 27, a five-year deal worth $3.25 million per season. Faksa was a consistent 30-point scorer for three seasons before he dipped to only 20 points in 2019-20. He has a five-season veteran before signing his contract.
*Nashville signed 21-year-old and former 15th overall pick Luke Kunin to a two-year deal worth $2.3 million annually. Kunin scored 31 points (15-16-31) for Minnesota in 2019-20.
*Winnipeg held center Jack Roslovic’s feet to the fire with a two-year, $3.8 million deal after scoring 29 points (12-17-29) in 71 games. Roslovic desperately wanted a larger role in Winnipeg and forced his way out, but his RFA deal is a by-the-book contract for a young third or fourth-line center.
Roslovic broke out when he got to Columbus and popped 34 points (12-22-34) in 48 games. That’s probably much higher than Blueger’s ceiling.
*Tyson Jost in Colorado would seem to parallel Blueger. Jost’s point totals were in the mid-20s in his first three seasons. He’s a valuable contributor who outscores his opponents. However, Colorado held Jost to just $874,125 last fall.
So, What is Teddy Blueger Worth?
According to our friends at CapFriendly.com, the Pittsburgh Penguins are about $1.1 million over the cap for next season. In other words, not everyone can stay, not everyone will get paid, and there could be a few surprises.
Blueger is likely to be exposed to Seattle, with Jason Zucker, Marcus Pettersson, and Aston-Reese. The Penguins have another decision between Jeff Carter and Jared McCann, too.
It’s no given that Seattle and GM Ron Francis, who built a quick team in Carolina, will pass on Blueger. However, if they don’t select him, the Penguins will likely clear at least $4 million, if not over $5 million in the expansion draft, giving them the ability to re-sign Blueger.
A subtle factor to consider, we knew former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford liked to pay fair value to RFAs. Marcus Pettersson and John Marino are prime examples. We don’t know how tough general manager Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke will be.
Should the Penguins offer Blueger less than $2,181,545 million (2020-21 figure), the compensation for a team to sign him to an offer sheet is a third-round pick.
Given the league-wide salary crunch, a team’s power over RFA’s, and Blueger’s value to the team, we’re inclined to go on the high side of the scale for the Latvian speedster.
We like Blueger’s game and think the Penguins and head coach Mike Sullivan do, too. It appears the flat cap will last for a few seasons, so a bridge deal would not benefit the player.
We’ll project the Penguins give salary and get agreeable term. In normal years, we would project Blueger at $2.5 million and Blueger’s camp would be justified in seeking that type of money. But these aren’t yet normal times.
2021-22 Blueger Estimate: Three years, $5.7 million with a $1.9 million AAV.