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NHL’s top 20 UFAs of 2020: Latest rumours, reports

As we near the official opening of free agency on Oct. 9, here’s an updated look at the biggest names looking to sign on the dotted line this fall.

1. Alex Pietrangelo, D, St. Louis Blues
Age: 30
2019-20 cap hit: $6.5 million

After a season-long saga that saw both sides consistently reiterate a desire to continue the relationship, it looks like Pietrangelo and the Blues could be parting ways. As The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reported last month, talks between the two parties have broken off.

“There was a discussion today, and I guess the best way to sum it up, we haven’t really made much progress,” Pietrangelo told Rutherford. “We just think right now, with where things are at, that maybe it’s best for both sides to see what’s going on in free agency, what the team can explore, what I can explore and if there are better fits for each side.”

Math was always going to be an issue – general manager Doug Armstrong said as much earlier this off-season, and the flat salary cap makes the $9-million-plus annual salary Pietrangelo can command on the open market tough to accommodate.

“We’re a little disappointed that we’re in this situation,” Pietrangelo told Rutherford. “We weren’t able to hammer out the details what we wanted in a deal. There was some work that we tried to get done that we couldn’t get done, so both sides agreed that maybe it’s in the best interest. We’re two weeks away. Not saying anything can’t change, but as of right now, that’s kind of our plan, and we’ll see where things go.”

Rutherford also noted that despite the break in talks, Pietrangelo hasn’t ruled out a return to St. Louis. And Pietrangelo going public could just be his camp’s way of applying more pressure to Blue brass, via public outcry against losing their captain.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in his latest edition of 31 Thoughts that Blues management and Pietrangelo’s camp are going to take one more run at this and suggested the biggest question is this: “Do the Blues believe he will leave?”

Hockey Central

Super agent Don Meehan on entering an NHL off-season like no other

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2. Taylor Hall, LW, Arizona Coyotes
Age: 28
2019-20 cap hit: $6 million

“It’d have to be very creative to keep him [in Arizona],” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said Wednesday via NHL.com, addressing Hall. “That’s something we’re going to explore. We’re never going to turn our eye to talent like that. He’s a heck of a player, but we’ve got to explore. These are [things that are] going to happen between now and free agency. We’re going to explore everything.”

“Creative” is a word that came up a few times with Armstrong on Wednesday. During an interview on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central last week, he said the front office will need to exercise a little creativity when it comes to acquiring assets.

“There’s a little bit of a creative way that we have to go and acquire assets to stay in the game and make sure that we’re still bringing players in — whether it’s college free agents, European free agents, or it’s through the draft,” he explained.

The Coyotes aren’t slated to make a selection until Round 4 of this fall’s NHL Draft and don’t have a first-rounder until 2022 – they sent their 2020 first-round pick to New Jersey in exchange for Hall, and forfeit next year’s after breaking the league’s combine testing policy.

Though Armstrong didn’t mention Hall during his Sportsnet appearance, it feels like trading Hall’s rights could count as a “creative” way to recouping a few assets in the form of a pick or two from a team looking for exclusive negotiating time with the top forward on the market – not to mention the chance of tacking on an eighth year to a new deal with him.

Ten seasons into his NHL career with just two short playoff stints to show for it, Hall’s priority heading into the biggest decision of his career is no surprise.

“I think honestly it’s probably all winning,” Hall told reporters in August, following Arizona’s Round 1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. “Any player at this stage in their career who’s had the career I’ve had, 10 seasons only making the playoffs twice, that’s really what I’m after. We’ll see what happens there.”

Sportsnet’s Rory Boylen looked at a handful of teams that could potentially land the top forward of the 2020 class, with the on-the-rise Montreal Canadiens ($18.5 million in projected cap space) and Avalanche (about $22.3 million) particularly intriguing.

Hall acknowledged the current financial landscape of the league is strained due to COVID-19.

“I don’t think the money is going to be what it was before COVID or before this season, but that’s fine,” he said. “I think we get paid a lot of money to play a game and we’ll see what happens.”

3. Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins
Age: 28
2019-20 cap hit: $5.25 million

Krug has spent his entire NHL career to date with the Bruins – first on back-to-back one-year bridge deals, followed by the four-year pact that’s expiring now – and is looking for a long-term commitment. He’d like that to be with Boston, but made it clear he won’t be signing another short-term deal to stay.

“I’m very opposed to that,” he told reporters earlier in September. “I’ve bet on myself. I’ve taken shorter-term deals, less amount of money my whole career now. This is my time in terms of my value at its peak. I have the ability, I’m in a position now where I need to make the most of it.”

4. Robin Lehner, G, Vegas Golden Knights
Age: 29
2019-20 cap hit: $5 million

Goaltending was the biggest storyline for the Golden Knights this post-season – having two starting netminders will do that — so it’s no surprise that the club’s crease remains in the spotlight as they stare down the off-season after being ousted from contention by the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final.

“We don’t have those answers for you right now,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon told reporters last week, addressing goaltending. “But [the] first order of business, I think, in many respects, is to sort that out.”

Two one-year deals and a deadline trade have seen Lehner suit up for three different teams in the past two seasons, and he’s thrived with all of them. His dominance this post-season (9-4 record, 1.84 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and four shutouts) has ultimately hoisted him from popular UFA-to-be to the hottest goaltender potentially on the market.

That is, if he even makes it to free agency. As his incredible playoff numbers indicate, Lehner looks right at home in the Golden Knights crease and after all signs initially pointed to the 29-year-old being a short-term rental for a long post-season run, it sounds like both team and player are looking to keep this relationship going.

Golden Knights reporter Jesse Granger of The Athletic wrote last month he believes the team is planning to lock up Lehner with a long-term contract extension.

This could get complicated, though, as starter-turned-backup (and fan favourite) Marc-Andre Fleury still has two more seasons remaining on the three-year extension he signed with the club back in 2018, coming in at $7 million per season.

Fleury told Granger last week that he’s not looking for a trade out of Vegas:

“I want to stay in Vegas,” he told Granger. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve loved every moment since I got here.”

“This team means a lot to me, and the city has been so good to me,” Fleury said. “The fans, and [owner Bill Foley] have been so awesome. It’s a great team, and I thought when I came here that maybe I could retire here. I wanted to end my career here.”

5. Tyson Barrie, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
Age: 29
2019-20 cap hit: $5.5 million (this AAV is split between Colorado and Toronto)

Barrie’s time in Toronto didn’t go how he or the Maple Leafs expected, making a clean split in free agency a certainty for the two sides.

“I wish I would’ve left a little more of a stamp on the series,” Barrie, who didn’t register on the scoresheet through all five games of the qualifying round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, said in August following the conclusion of Toronto’s season.

Asked about where he might land and what kind of contract he’s looking for going forward, Barrie said, “at this point I have no idea what the future holds.”

All has been quiet on the rumour front when it comes to Barrie, but it’s safe to say he will be prioritizing chemistry and opportunity in an effort to regain his game with another squad.

6. Jacob Markstrom, G, Vancouver Canucks
Age: 30
2019-20 cap hit: $3.67 million

In a matter of days during the Canucks’ incredible playoff run this summer, the Hockey Twitter tide shifted from an urgent call to re-sign Markstrom to a sudden consensus that Thatcher Demko’s the guy after the rookie broke out in the playoffs and nearly broke the Golden Knights in the process. But for general manager Jim Benning, this isn’t a one-or-the-other decision.

“[Coach Travis Green] is a big believer in having two good goalies,” Benning told reporters during his end-of-season availability earlier this month. “With the travel schedule we have during the regular season, I believe we need to have two good goalies.”

Benning told reporters that Demko’s emergence doesn’t change the team’s motivation to sign Markstrom, who is expected to earn a nice raise to the tune of around $6 million per year, and indicated that those negotiations to bring back the veteran will start this week.

“Jacob is an important guy in our group,” Benning explained. “He’s a leader and he was our MVP over the regular season, so we’re going to try to figure out a way that makes sense for us and that makes Jacob and his agent happy, to try to figure out a deal to get him signed.”

Staying the course and re-signing the veteran goalie, who is without a doubt the Canucks’ MVP of 2019-20, would pave the way for one heck of a fine goalie tandem in Vancouver with starts split down the middle, but it could also set the team up for trouble when it’s time to start handing out protected roster spots ahead of the Seattle expansion draft as every team is only able to protect one netminder.

The Big Show

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If Markstrom were to hit the open market, there would be a long line of interested suitors. The Flames, Red Wings, and Maple Leafs have been rumoured to have interest. Clubs like San Jose, Carolina, and Buffalo should be interested, too.

7. Mike Hoffman, LW/RW, Florida Panthers
Age: 30
2019-20 cap hit: $5.1875 million

Florida’s got a lot of question marks right now. The team parted ways with general manager Dale Tallon following its qualifying-round loss to the Islanders this summer, and it’s safe to say plenty more changes are on the way now that new GM Bill Zito has taken over and embarks on putting his own stamp on the club.

Hoffman looked like a sure rental candidate at the deadline but ultimately wasn’t moved. His strong performance through four games against the Islanders – three goals and five points – should make him a popular player among teams looking for another scorer to contend, though that scoring will be tough to part with for Florida.

8. Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals
Age: 30
2019-20 cap hit: $6.1 million

It’s looking more and more likely that we’ve seen the last of Holtby in All Caps, as Washington general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters last month that he expects Holtby to reach free agency.

“I’d expect him to go to free agency. The goalie market is unusually deep this year,” MacLellan said during a Zoom call after the team announced the hiring of Peter Laviolette as head coach. “I talked to his agent last week briefly about where he’s at and the kind of opportunities he’s looking for.

“I would assume he goes to free agency and we’ll keep in contact with him throughout the free agency period and see if he’s getting what he wants.”

At the beginning of the season, Holtby was a no-brainer as the top goaltender on the list of pending UFAs at his position, but the standout play of peers Lehner and Markstrom have seen the spotlight shift. Holtby’s own struggles this year have complicated his future outlook, and back-to-back early playoff exits for the 2018 Cup champs have made the Capitals’ next moves tough to predict.

Holtby struggled to find consistency this past season, and the emergence of rookie netminder Ilya Samsonov brought added urgency to Washington’s decision, especially when you consider the upcoming expansion draft next year. That Stanley Cup on his resume, however, should see him land a decent deal — wherever that may be.

9. Evgenii Dadonov, RW, Florida Panthers
Age: 30
2019-20 cap hit: $4 million

Another question mark for Florida, with all that applies to Hoffman being relevant here, too.

Dadonov quietly put up back-to-back 28-goal campaigns down in Florida, tallying 65 and 70 points in his past two seasons, and a scoring spree in January had him just three goals shy of that total through 69 games this season. A quiet post-season didn’t do his stock any favours, but he’s one of the more low-key intriguing names to watch as one of the league’s most underrated sharpshooters.

10. Tyler Toffoli, RW/LW, Vancouver Canucks
Age: 27
2019-20 cap hit: $4.6 million

After a down year in 2018-19 with 13 goals and 34 points on a floundering Kings squad, Toffoli got off to a strong start in Vancouver upon being traded in February.

An injury early in the playoffs had us wondering if we’d seen the last of him this year, but the 28-year-old came out flying upon his return in Game 2 of the second round against Vegas. His seamless fit with the Canucks makes him a priority for Benning in what’s shaping up to be a busy off-season in Vancouver with defenceman Chris Tanev also seeking a new deal.

“I want to stay in Vancouver and that’s my No. 1 priority as of right now,” Toffoli said last month.

11. Mikael Granlund, C/LW, Nashville Predators
Age: 27
2019-20 cap hit: $5.75 million

With GM David Poile promising changes ahead, there’s really no question that Granlund will be wearing a different sweater come 2020-21. With a flat cap and a down year on the stat sheet, Granlund could be a strong candidate for a short-term deal somewhere to get him back to his playmaking ways.

12. T.J. Brodie, D, Calgary Flames
Age: 29
2019-20 cap hit: $4.65 million

Flames GM Brad Treliving said in the spring he wanted to bring both Brodie and fellow rearguard Travis Hamonic back into the fold. But with the flat cap, will he be able to?

As the more offensively gifted of the Flames’ two pending UFA d-men, Brodie could be the more likely — but less affordable — signee in Calgary.

Brodie’s name has been in trade rumours before. Now, with another disappointing post-season in the books, the question in Calgary is whether (or maybe how much) Treliving will opt to split up his core and revamp his roster.

13. Anton Khudobin, G, Dallas Stars
Age: 34
2019-20 cap hit: $2.5 million

Every post-season, we re-learn the importance of having not just one solid goaltender but two. This year’s lesson comes courtesy of Khudobin. The veteran netminder started almost every single one of the Stars’ games this summer as No. 1 netminder Ben Bishop has been sidelined as “unfit to play,” and backstopped the club all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Lehner, Markstrom and Holtby are the biggest names potentially hitting the goalie market, but Khudobin will be a popular name, too – and, really, his market value has never been higher. The best fit for him? Dallas. Only, he may have just priced himself out of the market.

14. Kevin Shattenkirk, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
Age: 31
2019-20 cap hit: $1.75 million

He’s not the top UFA candidate he was just a few years ago, but Shattenkirk’s impact on Tampa Bay’s blue line – both in leadership and playmaking — should put him among a number of strong blue-liners ready to sign quickly if he hits the open market. After he finishes celebrating his Stanley Cup win, of course.

15. Travis Hamonic, D, Calgary Flames
Age: 29
2019-20 cap hit: $3.857 million

Hamonic, who made the decision to opt out of the NHL’s restart this summer to be with his family, has been a steady presence in Calgary and would no doubt be a smart signing for Treliving to make. The GM has a little more cap flexibility than some of his NHL peers, but how much will he devote to his blue line?

16. Sami Vatanen, D, Carolina Hurricanes
Age: 28
2019-20 cap hit: $4.875 million

Vatanen had to wait a while to suit up for a game with the Hurricanes, the team that acquired him from the Devils at the deadline, due to the lower-body injury that had him sidelined at the time of the league hiatus. Considering how little he played with his new teammates, Vatanen fit in well with the Hurricanes. The club’s depth at the position makes them unlikely to bring him back, however.

Injuries have prevented the rearguard from ever being able to play a full season, which will factor into his next deal.

17. Corey Crawford, G, Chicago Blackhawks
Age: 35
2019-20 cap hit: $6 million

While Crawford’s $6-million seasons are over, his career isn’t. We haven’t had many opportunities to see Playoff Crawford of late, but we got a pretty decent show this summer when the veteran netminder backstopped Chicago to an upset victory over the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifiers and kept the club alive in Game 4 of Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in 31 Thoughts last month that Blackhawks management and Crawford’s camp were initially “not seeing eye to eye on the dollar value of an extension.”

Should the two side part ways, Crawford would be a compelling case for a team looking for a veteran 1B — in the same vein as Khudobin has been for Dallas and Halak has done for Boston.

18. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Washington Capitals
Age: 36
2019-20 cap hit: $700,000

Montreal’s Kovalchuk experiment got off to a great start — the veteran proved he’s still got a little magic left in him, and his success looked even better with a $700,000 price tag attached — and saw the club flip him to the contending Capitals for a profit at the deadline. He fell flat in the playoffs with Washington, but it feels likely this wasn’t the last we’ve seen of Kovalchuk in le bleu, blanc et rouge. He’s a strong candidate to return to Montreal as a free agent on another low-cost contract.

19. Erik Haula, C/LW, Florida Panthers
Age: 28
2019-20 cap hit: $2.75 million

A string of injuries has hindered Haula’s ability to match the success he had with the Golden Knights in 2017-18, and he wasn’t able to strike up any chemistry with the Panthers upon being traded to Florida at the deadline. There’s no doubt he’s been a much-loved and valuable member of each team he’s played on, but durability will factor into his next deal.

20. Wayne Simmonds, RW, Buffalo Sabres
Age: 31
2019-20 cap hit: $5 million

Simmonds has struggled to find his stride since landing in Nashville at the 2018-19 deadline. Since then, he’s scored just nine goals and 28 points in 85 games split between the Predators, Devils and Sabres. He’s just three seasons removed from back-to-back 30-plus-goal campaigns and should be a top candidate for a short-term deal on a team that can help revive his career.

Other notable pending UFAs to keep an eye on: Jesper Fast (NYR), Craig Smith (NSH), Chris Tanev (VAN), Joe Thornton (SJ), Zdeno Chara (BOS), Chris Tanev (VAN), Alex Galchenyuk (MIN), Thomas Greiss (NYI), Brenden Dillon (WSH), Cody Eakin (VGK), Cody Ceci (TOR), Justin Schultz (PIT), Michael Frolik (CGY), Vladislav Namestnikov (OTT), Erik Gustafsson (CHI), Pat Maroon (TB), Zach Bogosian (TB), Kyle Clifford (TOR), Radko Gudas (WSH), Justin Williams (CAR), Mikko Koivu, Carl Soderberg (ARI), Brad Richardson (ARI), Derek Grant (PHI), Tyler Pitlick (PHI), Nate Thompson (PHI), Henrik Lundqvist (NYR), Jimmy Vesey

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