The first day of NHL free agency was like most everything else in 2020: affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Two marquee unrestricted free agents landed long terms and big dollars on Friday. Defenseman Torey Krug signed a seven-year, $45.5 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. Goalie Jacob Markstrom signed a six-year, $36 million contract with the Calgary Flames.
But several big names remained unsigned, at least for the moment, and the rest of the contracts were for four years or fewer. Most were for two or one.
Teams are tight against the salary cap and internal budgets, and the economic outlook is uncertain. The cap will stay at $81.5 million for the 2020-21 season. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association are targeting a Jan. 1 start and hoping fans will be the stands, but no one knows what the future holds. For the cap to rise in seasons to come, revenue will have to rise.
“In the economy we’re in and all the uncertainty of playing in front of fans, not in front of fans, what we’re going to be like, the short-term deals in a lot of cases make sense for both parties,” said Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, who signed two players to one-year contracts: forward Bobby Ryan and defenseman Jon Merrill.
The goalie market was active beyond Markstrom. Cam Talbot signed a three-year, $11 million contract with the Minnesota Wild; Anton Khudobin a three-year, $10 million contract with the Dallas Stars; Braden Holtby a two-year, $8.6 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks; Corey Crawford a two-year, $7.8 million contract with the New Jersey Devils; and Henrik Lundqvist a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Washington Capitals.
“The market within the market of the goalies seems to be the story, I guess,” said Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, whose team has the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Connor Hellebuyck. “You see a lot of different musical chairs when it comes to the goalies. Fortunately, we didn’t have to be in that market. I’m sure it can be pretty stressful if you’re shopping there.”
Krug signed late in the day, and the question became how the rest of the dominoes would fall and how fast.
Several big names remained available, including forwards Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman and Tyler Toffoli; defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Barrie and Sami Vatanen; and goalies Craig Anderson and Mike Smith.
“Well, I think maybe we’re all a little bit now accustomed to not being surprised by anything,” Florida Panthers GM Bill Zito said. “So I can tell you that as a staff, that’s how we’ve prepared, is sort of to be ready for anything.
“And I’m not sure yet where the … bigger names, or what we would anticipate as being the higher dollar value contracts, are going. They still may come to fruition at those higher numbers, and indeed I think some of those higher numbers have come in.”
Another factor: There was no interview period this year. Free agents could not visit cities or host teams to discuss their fit and explore contract parameters ahead of the market opening.
“I think the goaltending push was a first big push that had to get resolved, and it pretty well has now,” Stars GM Jim Nill said. “Now the next thing is, there are some big-named defensemen, some big-named forwards out there. We’ll see how that falls.
“Those players are going to take their time, and until they move, the market is going to be on hold. Then you have three or four teams that have cap troubles that have to move bodies. Where are those guys going to move to? There have to be some trades here. It’s going to be interesting to watch.”
Canucks GM Jim Benning said he had received a lot of calls late in the afternoon about trades.
“I think this free agency period, it’s not going to be like in years past, like, a five- or six-hour deal and it was all over,” Benning said. “This could be, like, three or four days, even a week.”
“This may go on for three to four weeks,” Nill said. “It may take a while for this flat cap, the pandemic, to really sink in.”
We’ll see. The situation obviously creates difficulty in some ways. But in other ways, it creates urgency.
“I think it’s definitely changed the landscape on how people think on the management side and on the player side,” Wild GM Bill Guerin said. “I think you don’t want to risk anything too long on either side, because it just might not make sense. As a player, you might miss out if you just wait too long for a better deal to come along. You might kind of be left behind.”
NHL.com staff writers Amalie Benjamin, Tim Campbell and Tracey Myers and NHL.com independent correspondent Kevin Woodley contributed to this story.