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The Negative Zone

Restricted free agency in the NHL is a weird, middling, vague, and unpleasant realm of the CBA. Due to the League being run by a bunch of old white, back-slapping cronies, the top end of the RFA toolkit rarely ever gets used in trying to poach players that have drastically out performed their first and second contracts. It’s a bit underhanded, but it’s perfectly legal to do, and the it’s such a big deal when an offer sheet happens is because they are so rare. Whatever anyone’s thoughts on the Flyers or Shea Weber as a player, the offer sheet he signed was brilliantly structured with poison pills left and right that made it difficult for mid-market dope David Poile to swallow when signing him.

But there is an inverse, flip-side, bizzarro aspect to restricted free agency as well, and that is when a team declines to give a player it has under control a qualifying offer, the deadline for which passed yesterday afternoon, and sometimes it’s not exactly done on purpose. And the list of players now left out in the cold is quite interesting.

When a player isn’t qualified, at the very least it is a team telling him that they are willing to risk losing him rather than having to pay the mandatory 10% salary increase that comes with a qualifying offer of a restricted free agent. Now, it could very well be the case that the team would like to keep said player at a reduced rate, but he has to hit the open market first for that to happen. An unqualified player can only sign before July 1st if he is getting a raise, as was the case with the Dale Tallon Fax Machine Boner of Aught Nine. But in most cases, a lack of a QO is simply a team washing its hands of a prospect. And of the 112 players who did not receive a qualifying offer yesterday, seven of which were at one time Hawks prospects, now scattered throughout the league. This list is comprised of Jeremy Morin, Ryan Stanton, Dylan Olsen, Adam Clendening, Brandon Pirri, Michael Paliotta, and Klas Dahlbeck– Rockford legends one and all. So what can be learned from seeing such a skewed number of Hawks farm hands get dumped by seven different teams?

There’s an argument to be made that it’s reflective of the fact that Stan Bowman has trouble drafting, particularly defensemen, as 5 of the 7 on the above list are blue liners, and 4 of them are picks by Bowman, with Olsen being a Tallon holdover. And that probably is true considering just how barren the Hawks’ system currently is of blue line help as Bottomless Pete eats his way through the next 8 years of a $6.875 million dollar cap hit. At best, it shows just what a crapshoot the NHL draft can be, and that even those with the pedigree and resume of Stan Bowman are not immune to it.

There is a flip side to this as well, where a case could be made that if these players aren’t even worth a 10% raise over their ELCs and/or sub-million dollar contracts, then he was fortunate to get anything at all for any of them, which is particularly true of Klas Dahlbeck, whose inclusion in a deal for Antoine Vermette directly contributed to a championship. And that fact probably doesn’t fully make up for having to throw in blue chippers like Johns and Teuvo to get out of Cap Hell, nor does it make up for letting prospects like Mark McNeill and the elusive Kyle Beach over-ripen in Winnebago County. So all things being equal, it still probably makes Stan Bowman a top-tier GM, particularly with the way his coach forces him to operate with one hand tied behind his back.

Furthermore, there are some interesting names on the non-qualified list that the Hawks could do well at taking a run at on Friday and get value out of given their limited cap space. Even Dahlbeck and Paliotta could be brought back into the fold, as they both still have shown more actual discernible upside than TVR has, with Dahlbeck’s steady positioning and Paliotta’s size and bomb of a right handed shot.  It’s long been known that Patrick Wiercioch recently of Ottawa was not going to be qualified, and he’s massive and has been a bit of a possession machine in his brief career with a bad team, but he might command more than the Hawks can afford. Kevin Connauton is of a similar mold to Paliotta, but will now be on his fourth team at 26, and unless you’re Kris Versteeg, that generally means the road is coming to an end.

At forward, Devante Smith-Pelley  could provide some bottom six speed, and both Linden Vey and Beau Bennett have played significant minutes in the NHL to this point and could provide fourth line depth (though Vey’s mental well being is a concern). But perhaps the most intriguing name is that of Brett Connolly, a former #6 overall pick of the Lightning, who was traded to Boston for two picks at the 2015 deadline. He’s had injury issues, but he’s a winger with size (6’2″, 210), and natural playmaking and scoring ability. He’s had 2 20+ goal seasons in the AHL in Syracuse, one of which was a 31 goal season that came under Jon Cooper, who is a posting contributor to several “Increase Your Size”/”Increase Your Loads” message boards. It’s a risk, but it the upside could end up being replacing a first round talent that just had to be shipped off to unload a bad contract with a similar game in a much larger frame.

And that’s really the point of all of this. Given their lack of flexibility under a hard cap, in order to remain competitive, the Hawks are going to need to continue to find and drive new market inefficiencies, and the odd neither-realm of the unqualified RFA could be where this team gets a little younger, cheaper, and better in the near-to-mid term.

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