NHL free agency 2020: Winners, losers and other big takeaways

ByEmily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The NHL free-agent frenzy was unprecedented this offseason -- and not just because it took place when the regular season is usually scheduled to start.

The new collective bargaining agreement kept the salary cap flat at $81.5 million. Otherwise, it would have plummeted, just as team revenues have during the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial landscape for this class of free agents shifted under their feet, from the blue-collar depth players to the blue-chip stars such as winger Taylor Hall.

"It was a little bit eye-opening, not just for me but other [free agents] around the league, not seeing the term that they wanted -- the flat salary cap, and some teams have internal salary caps as well," said Hall, whose outlook went from seeking long-term contract security to taking a one-year, $8 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres.

Some teams and players traversed the new financial terrain better than others. Here are some winners and losers from the first several days of NHL free agency.

See more: Tracker| Grades

Winner: Weaponizing cap space

What compels these NHL general managers to keep making trades with Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanchewhen they know it's going to end in grand larceny?

The Avs turned Anton Lindholm and Nikita Zadorov into Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad -- and had Chicago retain salary. They traded two second-round picks to the Islanders for defenseman Devon Toews. In both cases, the Avalanche used their considerable cap space to take on financial obligations that other teams didn't want to fulfill.

They weren't alone in taking advantage of other team's financial concerns. The Winnipeg Jets reacquired center Paul Stastny, who left them as a free agent for Vegas two seasons ago, because the Golden Knights needed his $6.5 million off their cap. The New Jersey Devils -- masters of the craft when it comes to trading for cap casualties -- picked up forward Andreas Johnsson from the Maple Leafs and defenseman Ryan Murray from the Blue Jackets. The Florida Panthers traded for defenseman Markus Nutivaara from the Jackets for the same reason. The Wild snagged Penguins forward Nick Bjugstad for a seventh-round pick, with Pittsburgh retaining salary.

There was also the Nate Schmidt trade from Vegas to Vancouver, as the Knights had to move his salary. But that's less about weaponizing cap space and more about having cap space available because no one re-signed with the Canucks.-- Wyshynski

Loser: Middle-class forwards

Despite the flat cap and the internal financial constraints on teams, free-agent defensemen still found their money and their terms. Players such asBrenden Dillon (four years, Capitals), Dylan DeMelo (four years, Jets), Radko Gudas (three years, Panthers), Kevin Shattenkirk (three years, Ducks), T.J. Brodie (four years, Leafs) and Chris Tanev (three years, Flames) all received solid unrestricted free-agent contracts. That's not even mentioning Alex Pietrangelo, who gotseven years from the Golden Knights after Torey Krug got seven years from the Blues.

Many of the free-agent goalies found their money and term, too. Jacob Markstrom led the way with six years from the Flames.Cam Talbot got three years from the Wild, and Anton Khudobin got three to stay in Dallas. But players such asBraden Holtby (Canucks), Corey Crawford (Devils) and Thomas Greiss also did well on two-year deals.

The forwards seemed most affected by the flat cap and the internal budget constraints from teams. In the first five days of free agency, only four unrestricted forwards signed for three or more years: Tyler Toffoli (four years, Canadiens), Craig Smith (three years, Bruins), Jesper Fast (three years, Hurricanes) and Zemgus Girgensons (three years, Sabres). By the end of last offseason, there were 14 contracts of three or more years for forwards. Although this was a down year for free-agent forwards, especially at the center spot, there's a clear economic impact on that middle class: Noel Acciari, Ryan Carpenter, Richard Panik and Brett Connolly all got three or more years last year, and that kind of player wasn't getting term or money this year. -- Wyshynski

Winner: Goalies cashing in

It promised to be a busy year for goaltender movement with the market flush with options. Was it ever. A quick look at the spin-around: Henrik Lundqvist going from New York to Washington, Braden Holtby moving from Washington to Vancouver, Jacob Markstrom switching from Vancouver to Calgary, Cam Talbot moving from Calgary to Minnesota and longtime Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford ending up in New Jersey.

It was great to see so many of these players -- many of whom could benefit from a change of scenery -- rewarded with big contracts. That includes Anton Khudobin, who led the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup Final with Ben Bishop on the bench. Khudobin stayed in Dallas for three years, $3.33 million AAV, which is a raise. The 34-year-old has been a career backup, albeit one of the league's best, but it was encouraging to see him sign a contract for more than two years, which he hadn't done since his entry-level deal. -- Kaplan

Loser: Edmonton Oilers not landing a new one

There's a lot to like about the Oilers' offseason. They bought low on Kyle Turris, who simply wasn't a fit in Nashville but could revive his career as the third-line center, with less pressure playing behind Connor McDavid andLeon Draisaitlon the depth chart. Edmonton also got Tyson Barrie, one of the best defensemen available this summer, to turn down more money for a bargain $3.75 million, one-year deal. Barrie makes an already good power play even scarier. "For me, it was a no-brainer," Barrie said. "It wasn't about money this year, but coming in to reestablish myself and show the league that I'm still a pretty good player." The Oilers were already a team with playoff expectations, and Barrie and Turris made them even stronger.

But the most obvious area the Oilers needed to address was goaltending, especially in a year when there were countless viable options via trade or free agency. After pursuing Markstrom and being snubbed by him for the rival Flames and then whiffing on a few other options, including a potential trade for Petr Mrazek, Edmonton settled on bringing 38-year-old Mike Smith back on a one-year, $2 million deal.

Smith will split the net with Mikko Koskinen again, but that doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Smith was mediocre in the regular season (.902 save percentage, .459 quality start percentage and minus-7.71 goals-saved above average) and worse in the postseason, allowing five goals on 23 shots in his one appearance. Somehow Smith got more money than Lundqvist, a likely Hall of Famer. It's a puzzling move, to say the least. -- Kaplan

Winner: Alex Pietrangelo

The public pressure play didn't work on the St. Louis Blues. Pietrangelo made his case through the media, but GM Doug Armstrong wouldn't budge from his stance against a no-movement clause and a bonus-money-laden contract.

Although he didn't get his first option, Pietrangelo had a heckuva fall-back position: the Vegas Golden Knights. They're a Stanley Cup-contending team in an incredible market. Best of all, they handed Pietrangelo the contract he wanted for peace of mind: seven years, a full no-movement clause and $35 million of his $61.6 million paid in bonus money. Only the last year of his deal doesn't contain guaranteed bonus money. Years 4-6 of his contract contain $22 million of it. This was a great job by agent Mark Guy getting what his client wanted and getting it with a contender in the West.-- Wyshynski

Loser: Kelly McCrimmon

It's hard to give the L to the general manager who landed the premier free-agent defenseman of the offseason, but to get him, the Knights had to give a player turning 31 next season a full no-move for seven years and a contract with an $8.8 million AAV, with the salary cap flat for multiple seasons. They also had to trade Stastny and Schmidt to create salary-cap breathing room.

Those trades happened because the Knights were unable to move Marc-Andre Fleury's $7 million AAV contract after committing to a $5 million AAV deal with Robin Lehner. After watching the goalie carousel spin for a week, McCrimmon finally had to admit that Lehner and Fleury were his goaltending battery for next season -- which, frankly, wouldn't be so bad if the team didn't need a center and didn't have $12 million of cap space dedicated to two players at one position.-- Wyshynski

Winner: Buffalo Sabres

Taylor Hall was the biggest-name forward available this summer, and after being traded twice the past four years, the 28-year-old finally had the chance to choose his landing spot. Hall was open to anything in terms of structure but said his No. 1 priority was to win.

It came as a shock when Hall chose a true dark horse in the Sabres. Yes, that's the team with the NHL's longest postseason drought. "When you're able to look past the smoke that's surrounded the Sabres the past couple of years, you see a team that has elite players, ownership that's really committed to building a winner and a coach that I feel can get a lot out of his players," Hall said in explaining his decision. Plus, of course, there's the lure of playing alongside Jack Eichel, which could bump value for Hall's next contract. Just ask Jeff Skinner.

The Sabres are suddenly relevant again, which is especially important for a fan base that has felt neglected and discouraged. Buffalo also finally has depth down the middle after trading for veteran Eric Staal and signing Cody Eakin. Hall will be only the second league MVP to suit up for the franchise, joining Dominik Hasek. The yearly optimism for the Sabres has sprung yet again, but this time, we might have reason to believe in it. -- Kaplan

Loser: Long-term deals

When the top forward available snags a one-year deal, it's a reflection of the market, which was affected by the flat salary cap, the uncertainty of next season's schedule and many teams' implementing internal salary caps to navigate financial hardships. Through Tuesday, only three players (Torey Krug, Jacob Markstrom and Alex Pietrangelo) had signed deals for more than four years. Through the first five days of free agency last year, eight players landed five-, six- or seven-year contracts. The squeeze was especially notable on a very slow Friday.

Per CapFriendly, the opening day of free agency in 2020 featured 80 contracts totaling $302 million in contract value. On the opening day of free agency in 2019, GMs gave out 126 contracts, totaling $708 million in contract value.

The COVID-19 squeeze saw a few players besides Hall take one- or two-year "prove-it" deals that hopefully will allow them to weather the financial storm. Structure was another big trend in 2020, as many players opted to take less money in the first few years of their contracts and then have numbers bump to a "hump" in the middle around Years 3-5, when the league is expected to recover from the pandemic.

As an example, look at Torey Krug's contract structure with the Blues:

Year 1: $4 million

Year 2: $4 million

Year 3: $8 million

Year 4: $8.5 million

Year 5: $8.5 million

Year 6: $6.5 million

Year 7: $6 million

This even affected shorter-term contracts. Here's the structure of Kevin Labanc's deal with San Jose:

Year 1: $3.2 million

Year 2: $3.95 million

Year 3: $5.875 million

Year 4: $5.875 million

Those are pretty big jumps in cap hit on the back end. -- Kaplan

Winner: Steve Yzerman

Yzerman had a year to figure out a path forward for the Detroit Red Wings, and he made a series of smart decisions to help the team in the short and long term.

  • He signed forwards Vladislav Namestnikov (two years, $2 million AAV) and Bobby Ryan (one year, $1 million) at great bargains.
  • He inked defensemen Jon Merrill (one year, $925,000 AAV) and Troy Stecher (two years, $1.7 million AAV) to smart deals and replaced an ineffective Jimmy Howard withThomas Greissof the Islanders -- a nice, German-born liaison for top defensive prospect Moritz Seider --at two years and $3.6 million AAV.
  • He picked up defenseman Marc Staal, along with a second-round pick from the Rangers, for the last year of his contract to help stabilize the blue line.
  • Finally, he bought out the rest of Justin Abdelkader's ill-fated contract.

The Wings have only eight players signed beyond this season, and they have six picks in the first three rounds of next year's draft. Let's go!-- Wyshynski

Loser: Jim Benning

Benning was getting absolutely fileted by Canucks fans at the start of free agency. Vancouver lost four free agents of varying degrees of impact. Two left for deals the Canucks couldn't and shouldn't have handed out: Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev, both with Calgary. Two left for contracts the Canucks could have matched in Troy Stecher, who left for Detroit, and Tyler Toffoli, who left for Montreal.

Benning quieted some of his critics by replacing Markstrom with Holtby on a shorter term, ensuring thatThatcher Demko didn't have to be exposed in the Seattle expansion draft, and trading a third-rounder for Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt, who more than replaces Tanev. But losing Toffoli stings. He fit snugly into the team's top six as a winger and gave Elias Pettersson a proven, play-driving veteran with whom to work. His contract with Montreal -- four years at $4.25 million AAV -- was something the Canucks could have matched, but Toffoli said that Vancouver barely conversed with him as a free agent.

Even if everything else is a wash, Benning takes a loss for negatively impacting his top six. The best thing to happen to Benning was a decision someone else made: The Coyotes decided not to move Oliver Ekman-Larssonand thus kept that bloated contract off the Canucks' books.-- Wyshynski

Winner: Montreal Canadiens

GM Marc Bergevin feels pressure from ownership to make the playoffs next year, and he helped his case with a heck of an offseason. The Canadiens showed strong defensive effort in their surprise 2020 playoff appearance and have two exciting, young players to build around in 21-year-old Nick Suzuki and 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Bergevin then added four players, including backup goalie Jake Allen, defensemanJoel Edmundsonand forwards Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli.

Allen gives the Canadiens a great one-two punch in goal, which many teams believe they need with a condensed schedule likely next season. Anderson and Toffoli were players coveted by many (including the division-rival Bruins) for their toughness and effort, and Bergevin got each at a great price. For Anderson, Bergevin was able to unload Max Domi, who was becoming problematic for the coaching staff. For Toffoli, Bergevin waited for the market to soften and inked him to a four-year, $17 million contract that should age well. Bergevin tried to trade for Toffoli before, and now the GM gets to sign the player without giving up any assets.

There are two caveats in Montreal, though. One, the Canadiens are over the cap, which means they must make moves to be compliant before the season begins. Two, contract talks have broken off with Brendan Gallagher for now. Gallagher is a hugely important player on this team, and he would become an UFA next offseason. -- Kaplan

Loser: Chicago Blackhawks' veteran core

The Blackhawks made a huge step by not only qualifying for the NHL's extended, 24-team postseason but also making the playoffs with an upset of the fifth-seeded Oilers. It was an exciting opportunity for Chicago's young core -- featuring Kirby Dach, Adam Boqvist, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome -- to get postseason exposure.

It seemed like the Blackhawks were effectively transitioning on the fly, allowing Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith another shot at the Stanley Cup. Then Chicago's offseason moves suggested the complete opposite. GM Stan Bowman traded Brandon Saad to divisional-rival Colorado, while retaining $1 million in his salary, for defenseman Nikita Zadorov, whom the Avalanche had been trying to trade forever and who is under contract for only one more season.

The biggest snub was to Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks offered him a one-year deal (at a reduced rate) and then didn't negotiate, suddenly telling him last week that they were going in a different direction. Crawford said he was "devastated." It sounds like Chicago's core is, too.

"I've never been told that we were going through a rebuild," Toews told The Athletic. "That has never been communicated to me, for that matter. A lot of this comes as a shock because it's a completely different direction than we expected." -- Kaplan

Winner: Kevin Shattenkirk

Shattenkirk's stock hit rock-bottom after he took a buyout from the Rangers in August 2019. The prized free agent of 2017 saw his time with his hometown team defined by injuries and ineffectiveness.

Flush with buyout money, he found the ideal place to jump-start his career: Tampa Bay, which signed him for one year and $1.75 million. The result? He had 34 points in 70 games with a plus-22, and he followed with a stellar postseason in which he had 13 points in 25 games to help the Lightning to the Stanley Cup. His reward? A three-year, $11.7 million deal with the Anaheim Ducks, complete with trade protection. That isn't a bad rebound -- with his name on the Stanley Cup, too.-- Wyshynski

Loser: Tyler Johnson

After the last boat was docked in the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup parade, the offseason work began: finding the salary-cap room to sign restricted free-agent forward Anthony Cirelli, as well as defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. The first domino to fall was center Tyler Johnson, who makes $5 million against the salary cap for the next four seasons. His no-trade clause limited the team's options to move him, so GM Julien BriseBois dropped Johnson on waivers ... and all 30 other teams took a pass.

Johnson knows that he has been targeted by the Lightning as a cap casualty, that no team jumped at the chance to claim him and that his future for next season remains in limbo. So much for the afterglow.-- Wyshynski

Winner: Washington Capitals

The Capitals have felt stale since they won the Stanley Cup in 2018. After another early postseason exit, GM Brian MacLellan fired coach Todd Reirden, and ownership shelled out big money (nearly $15 million) for veteran coach Peter Laviolette, who is supposed to squeeze the competitive juices back out of this team.

MacLellan faced a tight cap squeeze, as has been the case in Washington the past several years, but he somehow still found a way to improve his team. The Capitals parted with Travis Boyd, Radko Gudas and longtime goalie Braden Holtby. The flexibility allowed them to re-sign Brenden Dillon to a four-year, $15.6 million contract, a great deal considering that Dillon fit seamlesslywith John Carlson on Washington's top pairing after he was acquired at the trade deadline. Washington also added Justin Schultz, overpaying a bit at $4 million a year but perhaps in a necessary move, with Michal Kempny out six to eight months because of a torn Achilles tendon.

Most importantly, the Caps snagged Henrik Lundqvist at $1.5 million per year. Although the Caps were initially looking for a veteran backup to 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov, MacLellan changed his tune after the Lundqvist signing, saying that the Caps have a great tandem. That's because Lundqvist, who is supremely motivated after being bought out by the Rangers, still has enough in his tank and will be especially useful in the playoffs. He was a Capitals tormenter in the past, winning three of five playoff series against the team in his career. If you can't beat him, have him join you. -- Kaplan

Loser: Boston Bruins

The Bruins were on the cusp of doing something big this offseason. They were in on Taylor Hall. They were one of Oliver Ekman-Larsson's two preferred destinations for a trade. They had one of the top free agents available, defenseman Torey Krug, on their roster and willing to re-sign.

Then GM Don Sweeney didn't do much at all.

Sweeney signed expected 20-goal winger Craig Smith to a three-year, $3.1 million AAV deal, and Smith should fit like a glove in Boston's middle six. But Boston barely made an effort to keep Krug, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and quickly became a fan favorite and big piece of the power play. The defenseman said he wasn't even close to re-signing. This quote from Krug is going to sting for a while: "When they offered me a year ago, and then it's gone, I don't know what I'm expected to do. Just being blunt and being honest with you. Most people don't share that side of it, but it is what it is."

It doesn't help that the Bruins announced Tuesday that Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak both had surgeries that could require them to miss the start of next season. -- Kaplan

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