Monday was the deadline for NHL teams to tender qualifying offers to restricted free agents. As expected, the Pittsburgh Penguins tendered restricted free agents Bryan Rust and Jamie Oleksiak. Unexpectedly, the Penguins declined to tender center Riley Sheahan, making him an unrestricted free agent. Credit the Athletic’s Josh Yohe for being first with the news.
Sheahan, 26, was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings eight games into the 2017-18 season for winger Scott Wilson. Sheahan made just over $2 million last season, and the Penguins were obligated to offer at least that much. However. Sheahan is also arbitration eligible, and the Penguins could have been locked into a much higher contract number than they can spend on a fourth line center.
Earlier Monday, the Penguins signed wingers Daniel Sprong and Dominic Simon to two-year deals worth an average of $750,000 annually, which leaves them with just over $8.5 million available in salary cap space. Rust and Oleksiak could use up a good chunk of that money.
Last week, Pittsburgh Hockey Now sources reported the Penguins and Sheahan were in discussions. However, those discussions apparently did not go well.
Sheahan sits behind Derick Brassard on the Penguins depth chart and would be the Penguins fourth line pivot. He scored 32 points (11g, 21a) this season and was the Penguins primary defensive center and started a career-high 64.8 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. If Sheahan had gone to arbitration, he could have won more than $3 million, which would put the Penguins behind the salary cap 8-ball.
Sheahan’s style at times did not mesh well with the Penguins up-tempo game. Sheahan is a conservative player, and his lack of aggressiveness was at times a positive but at other time’s a negative. Sheahan’s faceoff work was the best in his career. He won 54.4 percent of his draws. Ultimately, Sheahan scored a majority of his points with Phil Kessel on his right wing, which was unlikely to happen often in the coming year, as a fourth liner.
So, the Penguins acted cautiously. However, Sheahan isn’t necessarily gone.
Last year, the Washington Capitals employed a similar strategy with Brett Connolly. The Capitals avoided the prospect of an arbitration “over-pay” and eventually signed Connolly to a two-year, $3 million deal ($1.5 million AAV).
The Penguins, not unexpectedly, also did not tender an offer to light-scoring fourth-line winger Tom Kuhnhackl. After a couple of clutch goals on their 2016 Stanley Cup run, Kuhnhackl scored just eight points this season. If the Penguins lose both Kuhnhackl and Sheahan, they will lose two of their four primary penalty killers.