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31 Thoughts: Inside the tough, tense early days of NHL free agency

We are used to a storming of the gates. Free agency doors open; money flies out like champagne at a Stanley Cup celebration.

But it was never going to happen now. Not in COVID 2020.

Need more proof? Let’s go to Lionel Hutz with the evidence — through Tuesday, only five unrestricted free agents who signed for more than $1 million received any signing bonus: Alex Pietrangelo ($35 million), Jacob Markstrom ($5 million), Taylor Hall ($1 million), Braden Holtby ($500,000) and Erik Gustafsson ($250,000). (PuckPedia helped with these details.)

In the first five days of 2019 free agency, there were 12 contracts signed with an average annual value of at least $5 million. This year, there were five — Pietrangelo ($8.8 million), Hall ($8 million), Torey Krug ($6.5 million), Markstrom ($6 million) and T.J. Brodie ($5 million). The forward market absolutely cratered. Only three (Hall, Tyler Toffoli and Craig Smith) reached an AAV of $3 million. Last year there were 11.

Here is a breakdown of signings by position:

Here it is for those who received at least $1 million:

Hall was told by several teams they had to move money before they could commit to him. There are some really good offensive players — Evgenii Dadonov, Mikael Granlund and Mike Hoffman among them — still in search of a relationship.

According to multiple sources, several agents and general managers tried to build support the last few weeks for the addition of a compliance buyout to ease the crunch and create flexibility. (A compliance buyout, which does not count against the cap, was part of both the 2005 and 2013 negotiations.) However, the plan failed for the same reason it failed during CBA negotiations — who was going to pay for it?

There’ve been some intense stories. One player told of getting 15 minimum-salary offers just after free-agency arrived, a painful realization that a pay cut would be unavoidable. Another said he was coming to grips with accepting a deal he didn’t want, only to be pleasantly surprised out of nowhere. Teams, agents and players are grinding.

“The uncertainty, not really knowing what the future holds, it would be tough on anybody,” Yannick Weber said Tuesday.

Weber, a 497-game NHL veteran, was not re-signed by Nashville, and is not used to this. He was signed by the Predators as a UFA on July 1, 2016; re-signed June 13, 2017; given a two-year extension on Jan. 9, 2018. At 32, he’s far from finished.

“I hoped it wouldn’t be my last year in Nashville, but I knew it could be,” he added. “I wanted to stay. When I was told I wouldn’t be coming back… it was hard to hear. I’d been here four years, been part of success and liked it here.”

Weber scheduled an on-ice workout for the start of free agency.

“I didn’t want to be on the phone all day, not knowing what’s going to happen. Being involved in the NHLPA (he was Nashville’s player rep), I understand the business. I know I’m not the only guy in that situation, but it’s mentally tough to deal with. You start to think, ‘Did I play my last game?’

“But I know my role. When I was let go by Vancouver and signed with Nashville, I had to completely change my game to be in the lineup. That’s what I have to do. I understand my market value. I’m not a player who can pick and choose, or say no to things.

“You have to keep confidence in yourself, even if there’s nothing concrete.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Montreal had interest in Hoffman, but that cooled when Toffoli signed. Nashville’s been sniffing around there, too. Other teams looking for a scorer — whether Hoffman or one of the others — include Boston, Carolina and Columbus.

2. Hearing several core Maple Leafs have personally pitched Joe Thornton on going to Toronto. The courtship is on and the interest is real. But one thing I’ve always been told about the future Hall of Famer: do not underestimate his loyalty to San Jose.

3. The moment Josh Anderson signed his seven-year, $38.5-million deal, I wondered what that meant for Brendan Gallagher — one year from unrestricted free agency. It’s emotional, and you only have to look as far as St. Louis to realize the challenges that creates. It is believed the extension being discussed between Gallagher and the Canadiens was similar to the one Anderson signed, and that Montreal has made it clear there isn’t any more wriggle room on its offer.

I would love to see Marc Bergevin’s phone and text log after news got out that extension talks broke off. Word around the NHL is the Canadiens’ GM said he wouldn’t be trading the aggressive winger. That hasn’t always been true, but Bergevin knows he has to make a run in 2020–21.

It would have to be some trade for Les Habitants to be better off without Gallagher, who is the emotional heartbeat of the team. He’s got enormous pride. It’s why he made it, and that pride is stung right now.

4. Anderson, by the way, was resolute in his belief: a one-year contract walking himself to free agency, or the max. Columbus had the hammer the last time his contract was up — this time the leverage was his. That’s one of the reasons the Blue Jackets made the trade, and he did not change his mind for Montreal. Have to admire it.

5. Boston and Calgary were among the others who badly wanted Anderson. If it had been the Flames, I think we’re talking about a pretty big deal.

6. If there are any “temporary bubbles,” hopefully Colorado and Vegas are lumped together. What an arms race, and we deserve this entertainment. What we know: Vegas signed Pietrangelo to the biggest contract of the 2020 free-agent extravaganza. What we’re hearing: the Golden Knights, aggressive from their owner on down, tried to do even more, considering Hall and Steven Stamkos.

We’ll get to Hall in a moment, but I do believe Stamkos was asked to consider waiving his no-move by Tampa Bay. There’s a wall of secrecy around it, and the captain is recovering from surgery. Obviously, his health is a huge factor. (Stamkos calmed the Lightning after their emotional overtime loss in Game 5 of the Stanley Final, re-assuring them, reminding them how well they played.)

For Vegas, creating the cap room for Pietrangelo was hard enough — creating even more is a multiple-Tylenol headache. As GM Kelly McCrimmon indicated, you chase difference-makers when they become available, because so rarely does it happen in the NHL.

“We had what we believed was an incredibly rare opportunity to add an elite player,” he said.

But it was a nervous, uncomfortable weekend for several Golden Knights, who were disappointed to hear their names in the trade market. A few teams wondered if Nashville would go after Jonathan Marchessault, for example.

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7. Vancouver knew on Saturday that if Pietrangelo signed, Nate Schmidt was likely to become a Canuck.

“The trade was really tough,” the defender told Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre. “It’s very emotional when it happens…. I found out when it happened, and that was it. That’s the hardest thing to come to terms with.”

Luckily for the Canucks, Schmidt’s disposition does not lend itself to brooding, and he will move on. Vancouver’s advantage was that it saw Schmidt purely as a player it needed, rather than an opportunity to squeeze Vegas for more assets.

8. Pietrangelo and St. Louis tried a few times in the last week before free agency, but there was never a sense it would close. I don’t think he believed hope was gone until the Blues signed Krug. When Pietrangelo hit the market, the rumour was seven years at $8.5 million per season from Vegas, and it ended up just north of that. He got the permanent no-move he wanted and only the last season of his contract has no signing bonus.

There was definitely some grinding, with one source saying, “Everyone was exhausted.” The only remaining question is if the Blues will ask the NHL to investigate for tampering. (EDIT: I had initially written here I believed the last team to be investigated was Toronto, after John Tavares. The Islanders reached out to say that they never asked for an investigation.)

9. Hall had a lot of teams saying, “Once we move this, we can pay you this,” even on a one-year deal. I think he was intrigued by Boston and Vegas, but neither could commit without moving money. (I’m not convinced Colorado even got that far.) With cash so tight, who knows how long it would have taken? Even then, many of the offers were around $3 million less than Buffalo’s offer. (It’s possible the Bruins were closer, willing to stretch for Hall, but that’s unconfirmed.)

It’s a lot to leave on the table, especially in a year where at least 28 per cent of your salary is to be withheld. Columbus had a longer-term offer, but I don’t know how high the number went. Hall wanted to know where he was playing. He didn’t want to sit and wait. The Sabres were in and committed, with a coach he likes and the best centre he’s ever played with. It’s bold. The NHL needs that.

10. The Blue Jackets remain intriguing. They moved money and now we’re all wondering what’s to be done with the space. They wanted Hall. They’ve considered offer sheets in the past, but there’s a belief they are protecting themselves against one to Pierre-Luc Dubois. (There’s such a cash crunch that I’m unconvinced we will see an offer sheet at this time.) Pietrangelo said he was considering one other visit besides Vegas. I’d suspect Colorado, but do wonder if Columbus made a serious pitch. The city is close to St. Louis; there are people in the organization who know him well (Brad Shaw); and the team had a desire to make a big move. Also, David Savard was available, at least for awhile. That appears to have changed, coinciding with Pietrangelo’s Sin City choice.

11. A couple of the Islanders were shocked Devon Toews was traded. Really talented player, but the two sides were not close on an extension. New York has some major raises to manage (Mathew Barzal, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock). Andy Greene is believed to be returning.

12. MacKenzie Weegar’s a popular name. Anaheim, Boston, Colorado, Toronto and Winnipeg are among those who have checked in. It is believed the Maple Leafs turned down a Travis Dermott/Andreas Johnsson request. Tyson Jost was discussed with the Avalanche and Jack Roslovic with the Jets. Roslovic is headed for a fresh start.

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13. Does Paul Stastny’s arrival mean Patrik Laine is off the market? Will everyone take a step back to see how they mesh? The best sense I can get is that things remain “status quo,” when it comes to the winger’s future.

14. Edmonton really believed it was going to get Markstrom, and were stung when things didn’t work out. Carolina made a late stealth pitch, but Calgary snared the goalie. Vancouver stuck to its philosophy of not going long on term with either Markstrom or Christopher Tanev, not budging until very late with either player. By then, both were moving on.

Tanev was disappointed, and his teammates will miss him. The deal the Canucks gave Holtby was what they were willing to do for a goaltender, and they discussed the possibility of Marc-Andre Fleury. They also talked with Travis Hamonic, but that went sideways with Schmidt’s arrival. They are looking for another defenceman. Slater Koekkoek or Sami Vatanen might fit. Hamonic had some Eastern interest (Philadelphia among them), but would prefer to stay in the Western Conference.

15. I don’t see Jake Virtanen getting to arbitration. That one gets settled. I can also see a path to Josh Leivo returning. Arizona was looking into him, too and there’s a D.J. Smith connection in Ottawa.

16. The Coyotes and Flyers talked Jason Demers.

17. I think the Flames had some conversations with Kevin Shattenkirk.

18. Carolina continues to examine its trade options with Jake Gardiner.

19. Florida is one of the teams that has conversed with Anthony Duclair, but I don’t know where that stands.

20. Minnesota tried to get a second first-round selection, but the Panthers said no — sticking with their pick and Anton Lundell.

21. The recovery time for Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak adds an extra layer to Boston’s off-season. Everything the Bruins consider must be weighed with the knowledge they need cap room to activate those cornerstones. That’s very tricky. I sense they’ve been very active in trying some short-term things. Someone who knows that organization well suggested I re-watch the Zoom calls after they lost to Tampa.

“That core group knows their time together is short,” the source said.

Those futures — Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask — loom large. Liked the Craig Smith signing. Good deal for an underrated player. But they will miss Krug. He loved being a Bruin.

22. Very common question: “What is St. Louis going to do with Vince Dunn?”

23. I’ve chased Jonathan Toews during the off-season. He prefers his privacy and declines interviews, which is totally understandable. I only bring it up because the fact he surfaced to give an interview to The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus about the Blackhawks’ direction is significant. Toews wanted to make a point. Chicago’s decision making says to me that Blackhawks ownership doesn’t feel the team can contend for a Stanley Cup, knows the economics are extremely challenging without fans and are punting on next season.

24. Toronto signed Jimmy Vesey with the opportunity to play a top-six role at $900,000. They also looked at Vladislav Namestnikov and Conor Sheary. The former got a better offer with Detroit. I’m surprised the latter is still out there. He can play with good players.

25. On the 31 Thoughts podcast, Zach Bogosian confirmed that he was 12 hours away from a face-to-face meeting with the Maple Leafs when David Ayres happened. GM Kyle Dubas cancelled, saying it made more sense to go with youth than veterans after that result. It was a tough time for Bogosian, cut by Buffalo and looking for a new job. Boy, did he land on his feet.

“I learned a lot in the last year,” he said. “You can be at your lowest of lows… and finish off in the highest of highs.” He had at least one larger offer out there (I think New Jersey), but chose Toronto.

26. Nothing is done until it is done, but Rick Bowness is getting closer to being named permanent head coach in Dallas.

27. Last Saturday, in Peace River, Alta., a statue of late Humboldt Broncos coach Darcy Haugan was unveiled outside the Baytex Energy Centre:

Thank you to Shane Clausing of EverythingGP (Grand Prairie) for the photos. Wanted to make sure this event was included. It’s the same company that made the Wayne Gretzky statue in Edmonton.

28. Michael Futa was an excellent add to our draft coverage, telling a story about how Marc Bergevin likes to ease tension in the minutes before the draft by making goofy phone calls. After Futa told that story, someone reached out with another example: Bergevin once phoned then-Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello right before a Leaf pick, said, “Sorry, butt dial,” and hung up.

29. Futa and draft guru Sam Cosentino were floored by Columbus’s selection of Yegor Chinakhov, which is hard to do. Those two are on top of everything. But Futa added the Blue Jackets don’t guess on European prospects. GM Jarmo Kekalainen and director of amateur scouting Ville Siren know that world as well as anyone.

“They obviously have a great feel on the player,” Futa said. “Jarmo’s a legend in Europe. They’re going to have a homework book (on Chinakhov), know he’s coming over, know everything about him.”

Futa continued by saying there’s nothing worse for a team’s draft guru that when there’s a surprise first-rounder, and your GM turns to you and asks, “Why wasn’t this player anywhere near our radar?” You better have a good explanation.

30. This depends on what happens with the border, but there is talk that Canadian-based NHL teams with U.S.-based AHL affiliates are considering moving them north of the 49th for the 2020–21 season. That’s Calgary/Stockton; Edmonton/Bakersfield; and Vancouver/Utica. It makes sense, because a quarantine period would mean you can’t call up players. Not sure if those teams would be based out of the NHL buildings or centralized, but it is something these three organizations must prepare for.

31. Wanted to recognize Dani Rylan Kearney, who stepped down this week as NWHL commissioner. The story of women’s hockey in North America over the past five years will make a great book/Netflix series one day. The rivalry between the CWHL and NWHL was as fierce as any we see in the NHL. Rylan Kearney had her supporters and her detractors; both sides passionately argued their positions. Like everyone else, she had her successes and her failures. People who know the politics behind this said you could see this coming, with the new Toronto team pushing for a change in direction. The NWHL was her dream. She poured everything into it. I admired her willingness to embrace the long odds.

BONUS THOUGHTS

32. During the pandemic pause, I read The Ride of a Lifetime by Disney CEO Robert Iger. It’s a great book and wholeheartedly recommended. Iger was preparing to retire and enjoy life, but felt a responsibility to lead his company through this point in time. There’s a comparison to be made with Commissioner Gary Bettman. At some point, you have to figure Bettman saw himself getting his last CBA done and, eventually, easing towards retirement. Now, like every other business leader, he (and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly) are working hard to save their industry.

The duo just navigated through one impossible-looking challenge (a playoff bubble), which succeeded beyond expectation. But there’ll be zero rest as they try to figure out another.

Bettman announced at the draft that Jan. 1 is the new “target” for the start of the 2020–21 season. A few sources I’ve spoken to think Jan. 15 is a possibility. Vegas owner Bill Foley told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen he believes Feb. 1 is a more realistic goal, with a 48- or 56-game season. Foley added that T-Mobile Arena needs 40 per cent capacity “to be economically” viable.

This is going to be like herding cats because the challenges from market to market are going to be different. Some teams will care more about playing this year than others. Some teams will be able to have more fans than others. Bettman will want to play enough games to end the current U.S. TV deal and start the next one. The NHL and NHLPA have begun discussions on next season, but I think the challenges of preparing for the bubble will pale in comparison to those of preparing for next year. I do not envy this task.

33. I’m a Michael Jordan guy forever. But LeBron James has made it closer than I ever thought possible. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain get totally stiffed in this debate, though.

34. I’m going to write here and there, but this will be the formal close of the 31 Thoughts blog until training camps resume. Thank you to Sportsnet’s editors. Most importantly, thank you to you, the readers. Without your interest, there’s no blog. Be safe and be smart. I don’t know how the banner-raising ceremony will look in Tampa, but I can’t wait to see it. Because that means hockey will be back.

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