The NHL's top storylines heading into an unprecedented free-agent period

Justin Cuthbert
·7-min read
EDMONTON, ALBERTA - AUGUST 05: Taylor Hall #91 of the Arizona Coyotes skates the puck away from Viktor Arvidsson #33 of the Nashville Predators during the first period of Game Three of the Western Conference Qualification Round at Rogers Place on August 05, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Taylor Hall will be looking for a new home this fall. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

There is no roadmap to the NHL’s free-agent period in 2020. With revenues down and the salary cap remaining flat, every team is facing its unique set of circumstances and must adjust their plans and ambitions accordingly.

Two things are for sure: it’s not an overly advantageous turn to be a free agent, and it is not a good time to be looking to move out money, either. However, something about free agency always seems to make owners a little less cap-strapped than they were claiming before, which bodes well for those looking to make a splash.

It could be dull. It could be bonkers. We’ll see.

But here’s what everyone will be talking about when the free-agent period opens in the middle of October for the first time ever.

Does Pietrangelo stay home?

Without question, the most valuable asset scheduled for the block is St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. This is a player who earned legendary status with the franchise by leading it to its first Stanley Cup two springs ago, but the relationship between the captain and the club has soured for reasons that aren’t completely understood. It’s believed that Pietrangelo’s gripes are mainly centred around the bonus structure, or lack thereof, tied to a maximum-term extension tabled by the club. However it seems the friction between the two negotiating parties began long before getting down to brass tax on the framework of a new deal.

The same money that would be out there for Pietrangelo under normal circumstances just might not be there this summer. But there are a handful of teams that will try to tempt the 30-year-old star right-shot defender with all that they can. The Vegas Golden Knights have come to the fore in recent weeks, but might have to pay an exorbitant price to move Marc-Andre Fleury to free up the cap space to sign Pietrangelo. It’s also expected that the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins will be involved, but those franchises face some challenges as well.

St. Louis will surely work to the final moment to keep Pietrangelo, who has put down roots in St. Louis. But being so close to free agency now, it seems certain the Blues captain will listen to what’s out there.

What does Hall want?

Taylor Hall has one of the single weirdest NHL careers going. Part of the most infamous one-for-one trades ever completed, It took the former No. 1 overall draft selection’s own outlying MVP performance for him to earn his first (brief) sniff of the postseason for the first time in his eighth season in the league. Since that personal best campaign, Hall missed significant time with injury one season and the next he was traded from his second NHL franchise, the New Jersey Devils, to his third, the Arizona Coyotes.

It seemed there was something there for Hall in Arizona, which stuck around in the bubble for one round after upsetting the Nashville Predators. However with a new general manager coming in, and the mandate to tear down with the financial situation being what it is, Hall is once again being pushed out the door.

Beyond what it’s meant for Pietrangelo, the circumstances have simply crushed Hall’s earning potential. But while it’s obviously a situation that’s less than ideal, it actually might help simplify things for Hall, who can just prioritize what’s best for his hockey career.

Does that mean chasing as much money as possible? Maybe it does. But it’s also possible that the situation encourages him to sign on with a winner, where he can re-establish his value while playing some truly meaningful games for the first time in his career.

Options galore

The free-agent crop isn’t limited to two stars in Pietrangelo and Hall — this class is super deep. Mike Hoffman, Torey Krug, Evgeni Dadonov, Sami Vatanen, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and Tyler Toffoli are just a few of the names that will be available when free agency officially begins.

What makes it even more competitive for teams and an uncertain for players stepping into the open market is that there’s a rush of restricted free agents that have been cut loose and added to the pool of players looking to nail down their next contract.

Anthony Duclair, Vinnie Hinostroza, Dominik Kahun, Andreas Athanasiou, Matt Benning, Troy Stecher, Nick Cousins, and Mark Jankowski are just a few of the names who did not receive a qualifying offer from their clubs, and who will most certainly attract attention and dollars in the open market.

Goalie glut

It’s not any easier for the few who reside in the crease.

It is an especially crowded market among goaltenders, and arguably the best option previously scheduled for free agency, Robin Lehner, did none of them any favours by signing a relatively modest five-year extension with the Vegas Golden Knights.

That leaves Jacob Markstrom at the top of the class, and it’s expected that he secures a hefty payday whether it’s with the Vancouver Canucks or not. But beyond that, Braden Holtby, Thomas Greiss, Corey Crawford and even postseason breakout star Anton Khudobin might have to settle for something less, while there may be less openings than there are hitch-hiking veterans from a bunch that includes Henrik Lundqvist, Jimmy Howard, Cam Talbot and Craig Anderson.

Matt Murray being traded to the Ottawa Senators for a second-round selection just before the proceedings were underway on Day 2 of the NHL Draft demonstrates just how cool of a commodity capable goaltending is at the moment.

How about the Avs?

The Colorado Avalanche are the team to watch in free agency. Maybe the favourites to win the Stanley Cup in 2021 as they are currently comprised, the Avalanche also have loads of money to spend in free agency.

Nothing should be considered off the table for the Avs, who could add another layer of offense if they so choose, or even shore up the goaltending that failed them in the postseason when starter Philip Grubauer went down.

With every other team feeling the squeeze, or so it seems, and Nathan MacKinnon remaining criminally underpaid, the time to strike is now for the Avalanche, who did brilliant work in free agency last summer, and would be downright scary if they do it again.

And the Leafs, of course

Kyle Dubas has laid out two main objectives for the offseason: shore up the defense and make the Leafs a tougher team to play against.

While there are no shortage of options in the NHL’s eco-space, every decision and roster move will have to be carefully considered because there is very little room for error for a team that was preparing to spend to the limits of a salary cap expected to continue to climb on its normal trajectory.

One huge advantage for the Leafs is that money is no object to their ownership group. In an offseason like this, there should be opportunities to improve their team by alleviating the financial pressures on others by stomaching real-dollar cost, and it’s imperative that the Leafs find them.

Nibbling around the margins is important, obviously, to support a solid core and to satisfy one of the main objectives, which to become a meaner, more difficult team to compete against. However it’s not out of the question that there is a massive move out there for Toronto to fix the defense. Pietrangelo could not fill the void on the right side of the defense core any better, but it does seem unlikely at this point that he will strike a deal with his hometown team. But the Pietrangelo idea was likely going to require a substantial associated move.

To finally nail down that impact defenseman, the Leafs might have to trigger it anyway.

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