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Notebook: Buyer’s Market for Free Agents; Lackluster Lafreniere

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, NHL trade rumors

The Pittsburgh Penguins allowed Danton Heinen to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, when they declined to re-sign him after his one-year contract expired.

Heinen still hasn’t landed a job — or even a training-camp tryout — for the 2023-24 season, and he’s got plenty of company in that regard.

While a few veterans have accepted professional tryout offers in recent days — Alex Chiasson agreed to attend Boston’s camp next month, and former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Nathan Beaulieu will attempt to play his way into a contract with Carolina — more than a few established talents remain on the open market.

Some, like 35-year-old center Jonathan Toews, have not ruled out leaving the game for good, but most are believed to be interested in extending their careers.

Unfortunately for those players, about half of the league’s 32 teams are in no position to add anyone. Not without shedding some guys they already have under contract, anyway.

Per rosters constructed by PuckPedia.com, no fewer than five teams (Montreal, Tampa Bay, Vegas. Vancouver, Vegas and Colorado) have payrolls that exceed the salary-cap ceiling of $83.5 million for the coming season, and nine others, including the Penguins, have less than $775,000 — the minimum for a contract in 2023-24 — of cap space available.

Since becoming cap-compliant is not optional — the NHL has a hard cap, with no provision for a “luxury tax,” like that in baseball — more clubs will be looking to pare salaries than to add some.

A few of the players still on the market are pretty good bets to draw interest from clubs in coming weeks, but might have to take a pay cut and/or end up with a team that wouldn’t necessarily have been his first choice.

Longtime Chicago winger Patrick Kane, who finished last season with the New York Rangers, is a good example of that. It’s hard to imagine anyone offering him a deal with a cap hit rivaling the $10.5 million one his recently expired contract had, and there’s no guarantee that any of the teams that have the space needed to sign him — and the inclination to do so — would be viewed as a desirable destination by Kane.

Still, Kane is in a better position than some other long-established free agents.

Pittsburgh Penguins alum Phil Kessel, who had a pedestrian regular season for Vegas and dressed for just four playoff games during the Golden Knights’ title run, is perhaps the most prominent member of that group, which includes fellow vets like Tomas Tatar, Paul Stastny, Josh Bailey and Jaroslav Halak.

Lafreniere in limbo

Remember when Alexis Lafreniere was expected to have a major and immediate impact on the New York Rangers after they claimed him with the first choice in the 2020 NHL Draft?

Well, three years, 216 games, 47 goals and 44 assists later, Lafreniere and the team still haven’t been able to work out a contract to replace his entry-level deal, perhaps because Lafreniere hasn’t come close to living up to the enormous potential so many saw in him.

Indeed, if that draft were to be re-staged now, there’s absolutely no reason to believe Lafreniere would go No. 1. That distinction almost certainly would go to Ottawa forward Tim Stutzle, who was taken third overall — Los Angeles made Quinton Byfield the second pick — but has put up 73 goals and 104 assists, easily the most points of anyone in the draft class.

Lafreniere has not been a bust — Stutzle, Detroit’s Lucas Raymond and Dawson Mercer of New Jersey are the only 2020 draftees to put up more points than he has — but his disappointing performance to this point in his career underscores the difficulty of accurately assessing the pro potential of even the most promising teenaged players.

For every No. 1 overall choice who meets — or even exceeds — the most lofty of expectations (Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid¬† and Alex Ovechkin, for example), there is an Alexis Lafreniere, who doesn’t live up to the hype, or a Nail Yakupov, who turns out to be an unmitigated flop.

The Rangers and Lafreniere eventually will reach a contract agreement, likely before training camp opens, and Lafreniere can prepare for what figures to be a pivotal season in his career. No longer will anyone be expecting him to stake out a spot among the league’s top players, but he can at least show that he’s capable of being a significant contributor at this level.