Why NHL free agency is so mysterious this year


This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

NHL free agency opens tomorrow — and there are a lot of unknowns

Add this to the list of events the pandemic has turned upside down. Normally, hockey’s annual frenzy of signings occurs on Canada Day. This year, it’s right before Thanksgiving weekend. And there are a few other wrinkles to consider as the market opens Friday at noon ET:

The salary cap is staying the same for next season.

Teams plan for it to rise every year because it’s tied to league-wide revenue, which had kept going up. But the pandemic slammed the brakes on that, so everyone still has “only” $81.5 million US to spend on players this season.

Obviously, that could hamstring teams who are up against the cap. According to CapFriendly’s numbers, Vegas is currently over it. And the teams within $5.5 million of the limit include the last four Stanley Cup champions (Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Washington and Pittsburgh) and the ever-embattled Toronto Maple Leafs.

Money is tight.

The cap tells us how much the league will allow teams to spend on players. But it doesn’t tell us how much each team is willing to spend. That’s the great unknown this year.

A lot of money was lost when the NHL had to shut down for almost five months and then do its entire playoffs without any ticket-buying fans in the building. Worse, no one knows when the bleeding will stop. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced during the draft that the league and the players’ union are targeting Jan. 1 as the start date for the new season and their intention is to play a full schedule with fans in attendance. But, judging by the current rise in infections, that seems like wishful thinking at best.

Even though they’re all in that same boat, every team’s financial situation is different. Some are owned by super-rich guys. Others by less-super-rich guys. Others by corporations. Each of them have their own separate investment interests and revenue streams outside of hockey. So it’s hard to know who’s been hit extra-hard by the pandemic, who’s staying afloat and who’s maybe doing quite well (since the crash, a lot of money has been made in the stock market and by certain tech companies).

Having said that, there’s a general air of uncertainty, even fear, in the air. That means free agents could be seeing fewer long-term, big-money offers — especially if they’re not elite players. This could be the year to do a “bet on yourself” deal for one or two years, with hope that the money is flowing again when you go back on the market. That is, if you even have the choice.

There’s an expansion draft coming up.

The Seattle Kraken will join the league for the 2021-22 season. Following the 2021 playoffs, they’ll get to poach one player from every team except Vegas. There are a bunch of arcane rules around who the Kraken can and can’t pick, but the key point is that each team can protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie, or eight skaters (forwards/defencemen) and one goalie.

The one-goalie rule especially could impact the free-agent market because there are a ton of good netminders available this year (more on that later).

*****

OK, so that’s the environment everyone’s operating in. Now let’s talk available players. When it comes to unrestricted free agents, there are two main guys and a group of guys to focus on:

Taylor Hall

Arizona GM Bill Armstrong confirmed yesterday that the talented winger will be moving on. That means Hall is headed for his third team in the last 10 months (Arizona acquired him from New Jersey last December). That’s unusual for someone who was the league MVP only two years ago and will still be on the right side of 30 next season.

But it’s also worth noting that Hall has averaged a point a game or better only four times in his 10 seasons, and he’s missed an average of about 15 games a year with assorted injuries. Hall has spent most of his career on bad teams (he started in Edmonton) and still been a very good player, but he could be seen as a gamble for a long-term deal.

Alex Pietrangelo

For those in the market for someone more steady, the 30-year-old St. Louis defenceman might fit the bill. Pietrangelo captained the Blues to the Cup last year and is the top blue-liner on the free-agent market. He’s good at both ends of the ice, can log a lot of minutes and has scored between 13 and 16 goals in each of the past four seasons. Plus, he shoots right-handed, and good righty defenceman are among the most valued and hard-to-acquire commodities in the game.

Pietrangelo and the Blues have left the door open for a return, but you rarely see that once a player hits the market. For teams that miss out on him, Boston’s Torey Krug and Toronto’s Tyson Barrie could be attractive secondary options.

The goalies (so many goalies)

Talk about a buyer’s market. Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford, Anton Khudobin and Jacob Markstrom are just some of the recognizable names available.

The abundance of decent options for goalie-needy teams should keep prices down, as should larger trends in the game. Like with running backs in football, best practices now dictate that, outside of a handful of superstars (and even then), it’s probably unwise to invest heavily in a goalie when a much cheaper guy (or tandem) can do nearly as good a job.

The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning ran counter to this philosophy by giving Andrei Vasilevskiy a pretty heavy workload in the regular season and then playing him for every single minute of the playoffs. But you wonder if they’re thrilled about having to pay him $9.5 million a year for the next eight years. Same for Montreal and Carey Price, who’s owed $10.5 million per for six more years. And Florida, which handed Sergei Bobrovsky a seven-year, $70-million deal last summer and then got bounced in the qualifying round by the tandem-employing Islanders. Get a full rundown on all the goalies for sale in this video by CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo:

There are plenty of big names available this year when free agency officially opens, but Rob Pizzo says plenty of teams may have new goalies when next season starts.  3:56

Quickly…

Two track world records fell yesterday — with some help. World 10,000-metre champion Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda smashed the 15-year-old record at that distance by six seconds, and Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey chopped nearly five seconds off the women’s 5,000m mark, which had stood for 12 years. Remarkable stuff, but new technology played a big role. Organizers of the meet in Valencia, Spain dubbed it “World Record Day” and did everything they could to ensure it lived up to the billing. Flashing lights on the track showed runners the pace needed to break records, and both Cheptegei and Gidey wore the controversial Nike ZoomX Dragonfly spikes that are helping runners lay waste to the record books at various distances — some say unfairly.

The Ontario government will allow the OHL to play this season — if it prohibits body-checking. Seems like a non-starter. But the provincial minister who oversees sports, Lisa McLeod, said her office is working with the league on a plan to get back on the ice amid the pandemic. The OHL, along with the WHL, is hoping to do that in early December. Canada’s other major-junior hockey league, the QMJHL, opened its season last weekend but has already run into trouble. Two of its teams — the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and the Sherbrooke Phoenix — are now dealing with outbreaks after playing each other twice, and the Quebec government has banned sports in “red zones” that include Quebec City and greater Montreal. Two OHL teams — the Ottawa 67s and the Mississauga Steelheads — are located in Ontario-designated “hot zones.” Cross-border travel is also an issue with three OHL teams based in either Michigan or Pennsylvania. Read more about the many obstacles facing the OHL’s potential return here.

Iga Swiatek made history at the French Open. The Polish teenager, who’s No. 54 in the world, became the lowest-ranked women’s finalist ever at the Paris Grand Slam event with another dominant win today. She crushed qualifier Nadia Podoroska 6-2, 6-1 and has now won all 12 sets she’s played while dropping only 23 games. Swiatek was having a good year, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and the third round of the U.S. Open, but she’d never made the quarter-finals of a Slam before. Now she’ll play for the title Saturday vs. Sofia Kenin. The fourth-seeded American won this year’s Aussie Open in her only trip to a Slam quarter-final before this week. The men’s semis are tomorrow, with No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal still on course for a showdown in the title match. For that to happen, Djokovic has to beat No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nadal must get through No. 12 Diego Schwartzman. Read more about today’s women’s semis here.

The Women’s PGA Championship teed off today. The third of this year’s four women’s golf majors is taking place in a suburb of Philadelphia. It’s followed by the U.S. Open in December in Houston. Two Canadians are competing this week. Brooke Henderson is ranked fourth in the the world after nearly winning the last major (she lost in a playoff at the ANA Inspiration a month ago). She was tied for 33rd at 1-over through eight holes at our publish time. 98th-ranked Alena Sharp was tied for 16th at even par through 12. Check the live leaderboard here.

And finally…

It’s always a good day to remember Donovan Bailey’s 100-metre victory at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It’s one of the absolute best moments in Canadian sports history. But it almost didn’t happen. Bailey had to overcome a pretty serious injury, and the deadly Centennial Olympic Park bombing occurred the morning of the final. Read more about those scares and lots of other good inside stuff on the race from the people who were there — including Bailey himself — in this oral history by CBC Sports’ Doug Harrison, which includes a wonderful video treatment of the race by Steve Tzemis.

You’re up to speed. Get The Buzzer in your inbox every weekday by subscribing below.

Read more at CBC.ca