October 24th, 2020

NHL free agency opens amid economic uncertainty brought on by COVID-19 pandemic

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on October 9, 2020.

St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo, right, checks Chicago Blackhawks' Adam Boqvist during second period NHL exhibition game action in Edmonton, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ground running at the opening bell of NHL free agency.

The club signed gritty, hometown winger Wayne Simmonds to a one-year, US$1.5-million contract shortly after the market opened at noon ET on Friday.

The 32-year-old has registered 251 goals and 499 points in 909 career games with the Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres over his 12 NHL seasons.

The 61st pick in the 2007 draft by Los Angeles has added 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 44 playoff outings, and should add some sandpaper to a talent-rich roster that general manager Kyle Dubas said earlier this week needs to be harder to play against.

The Winnipeg Jets made the day’s first big move – albeit on the trade front – by re-acquiring veteran centre Paul Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights for defenceman Carl Dahlstrom and a conditional fourth-round draft pick in the 2022 draft. Stastny, sent to the Jets from the St. Louis Blues at the 2018 trade deadline, left the Manitoba capital via free agency that summer following Winnipeg’s run to the Western Conference final.

The Columbus Blue Jackets started moving chess pieces around their board Thursday with a couple of moves, including buying out centre Alexander Wennberg and trading defenceman Ryan Murray to New Jersey for a draft pick.

The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, re-signed pending restricted free-agent defenceman Victor Mete to a one-year deal shortly before noon Friday, and Bobby Ryan found a new home in Detroit, inking a one-year pact after the 2020 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner was bought out by the Ottawa Senators.

The biggest name available in free agency is St. Louis Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who was unable to come to terms on a new deal.

Taylor Hall 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.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered the NHL before the league eventually completed its 2019-20 campaign with a 24-team restart this summer and fall inside tightly controlled bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto without fans, means that teams are dealing with a flat salary cap of US$81.5 million for the foreseeable future.

In short, there’s less money in the system, and less room for many franchises to manoeuvre. The NHL has pushed back the potential start date for the 2020-21 season from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, but when spectators will be allowed back into arenas remains an unknown for a league that relies on ticket sales for roughly 50 per cent of its revenues.

A number of veteran goalies are also available on the free-agent market, including Henrik Lundqvist – who’s expected to sign with the Washington Capitals – Jacob Markstrom, Anton Khudobin, Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford, Thomas Greiss, Craig Anderson and Cam Talbot.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published October 9, 2020.

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