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NHL teams, players primed for uncertain free-agency period amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a long list of unknowns and worries across society. Questions thought unimaginable just seven months ago — about health, jobs and the economy — are now being asked on a daily basis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a long list of unknowns and worries across society.

Questions thought unimaginable just seven months ago — about health, jobs and the economy — are now being asked on a daily basis.

Sports, while far down the list of what's important in a world where more than one million people have died from the coronavirus, is no different.

And general managers around the NHL are grappling with their own realities related to the pandemic as the league prepares for Friday's opening of free agency.

"The dynamics always change, every year is different," Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "Certainly with the unprecedented things that we're faced with moving forward, that has changed a lot of different thought processes."

That includes knowing the salary cap, originally projected to rise to at least US$84 million in 2020-21, will instead remain at $81.5 million for a couple of seasons, and not knowing when fans will allowed back into arenas — crucial for a league that relies on ticket sales for roughly 50 per cent of revenues.

Some franchises are tight to the cap and need to shed salary to make moves to their rosters, while others are no doubt looking at the bottom line and motivated to make changes to reduce the real dollars spent on the upcoming campaign.

"A lot of teams are trying to move money (via trade)," Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said. "And the money they're trying to move, obviously it hasn't happened much so far. That means that it's hard to move money. And when it's hard to move money, that means there's no money in the system ... I think everyone's very, very careful with how money's being spent right now. 

"Because of the flat cap and COVID, (that's) how it's heading for the next few years." 

Some players who have already re-signed with their teams agreed to back-loaded contracts in hopes of earning as much of the value on the deal as possible because escrow — which guarantees a 50/50 split of hockey-related revenue with owners — will be steeper than usual in 2020-21 and beyond.

Another wrinkle is the courting period, where teams could speak with players and their representatives in the days leading up to free agency, is no more.

It all adds up to what should be another interesting period in league history no one envisioned back in March.

"It's supply and demand," Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland said. "I think lots of players are going to do short-term deals, but I think there are going to be some long-term deals. Those people who are in demand Friday and have multiple teams after them are going to be able to use that leverage to get some length to their contract. I would expect those contracts would probably be Friday and Saturday. 

"In some cases now, players are going to want to take some time to talk to some teams. I would expect that there's a possibility free agency might move a little slower." 

Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said the challenge is to not only plan for next season, but to try to map out contracts that need to be signed next summer and beyond in a flat-cap world.

"There's going to be movement ... there's going to be activity," he said. "Everybody's a little bit antsy at this time of year. You want to know where you're going and players want to know what they're making. 

"It makes for a busy few days." 

With all that in mind, The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the big-name unrestricted free agents poised to hit the market.

ALEX PIETRANGELO (2019-20 cap hit: $6.5 million)

The St. Louis Blues captain has been unable to come to an agreement on a new deal with the team he helped lead to the Stanley Cup two seasons ago. The 30-year-old right-shot defenceman from King City, Ont., just north of Toronto, figures to be the biggest prize available. The Maple Leafs have long been viewed as a potential suitor, but GM Kyle Dubas would likely need to move more money out the door to make a deal work.

TAYLOR HALL (2019-20 cap hit: $6 million)

The winger was acquired by the Arizona Coyotes from the New Jersey Devils in December, but he looks set to leave the desert. The 28-year-old Hall is the most-coveted forward in this year's free-agent class and should have a number of suitors. It will be interesting to see if he goes for a short-term, big-money deal on a team with cap space to spare — the Colorado Avalanche would fit that bill — or opts for security.

TOREY KRUG (2019-20 cap hit: $5.25 million)

The 28-year-old defenceman has spent his entire career with the Boston Bruins. There's a chance Krug stays in Beantown, but he made it clear after the Bruins were eliminated from the NHL's 24-team restart this summer he's "very opposed" to anything other than a long-term commitment.

TYSON BARRIE (2019-20 cap hit: $5.5 million)

The blue-liner was acquired by Toronto in July 2019 following 57- and 59-point seasons with Colorado, but never really looked comfortable with the Leafs. Despite his struggles, the 28-year-old Barrie should still garner plenty of interest when the free-agent window opens.

JACOB MARKSTROM (2019-20 cap hit: $3.67 million)

The 30-year-old goalie helped lead the Vancouver Canucks into the second round of the playoffs, often standing on his head behind a team that gave up the third-most shots in the regular season. It took a long time for Markstrom to find his game at the NHL level, but now that he has, he's due a big payday. Markstrom is just one of a number of veteran goalies available, a list that also includes Braden Holtby, Anton Khudobin, Corey Crawford, Mike Smith, Cam Talbot, Thomas Greiss, Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson.

-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith and Donna Spencer

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2020.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press