NHL free agency kicked off Friday at noon and the deals, significantly fewer on Day 1 than in a typical year, were slow to develop into the weekend.
“A constipated market,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong noted late in the evening, upon making ex-Bruins defenseman Torey Krug the biggest catch of the day.
We are accustomed to anomalies in 2020, of course, and the ongoing devastation of the coronavirus was very much part of the impeded process on opening day.
First and foremost, clubs this year were not allowed the luxury of interviewing players and agents for the week leading up to the opening bell, so in theory, barring backroom winks and nudges, players weren’t apprised of any offers before the official witching hour.
Also, because of onerous escrow levels imposed with the negotiated extension of the collective bargaining agreement in May, the payout schedule of multiyear deals often was a point of negotiation. Escrow for 2020-21 has been set at a record 20 percent, and possibly as high as 14 percent for the following season. The first year, with the NHL in the throes of financial recovery because of the pandemic, also requires every player to defer 10 percent of gross pay.
Outcome: In many cases, deals were backloaded rather than frontloaded. Krug’s seven-year, $45.5 million pact with the Blues — the biggest of the day on Friday — is a perfect example. The cap hit for the Blues ($6.5 million) is the same each year. But Krug chose to be compensated only $4 million each of the first two seasons, lowering the total dollars he exposed to escrow. He’ll be compensated an average $7.5 million over the final five years of the deal and will gross a total $25 million over Years 3, 4, and 5, an average payout of $8.33 million.
Krug’s contract, according to puckpedia.com and capfriendly.com, includes zero dollars in signing bonus. Which means the Blues, if they ever opt to buy him out, can cut him free at a one-third discount of his remaining salary. Signing bonuses are protected from buyouts. Krug then, once more, has bet on himself. He’ll be 30 in April and fully believes he’ll collect the entire $45.5 million through the spring of 2027. Bold.
Overall, the most interesting trend on Friday was goalie movement, and specifically the shift of those brought in to fill the starter’s role. It’s rare for clubs to let go of franchise goaltenders, but again, the flat cap ($81.5 million) of the newly extended CBA forced many clubs to tighten belts and suffer potential consequences.
The Devils, who opted earlier in the week to buy out ex-No. 1 Cory Schneider’s deal, hired on ex-Blackhawk Corey Crawford as their No. 1. The two-time Stanley Cup winner, in net when the Blackhawks rubbed out the Bruins in the 2013 Final, signed for two years at a comfortable $3.9 million cap hit.
The Canucks lost their No. 1, Jacob Markstrom, to the Flames for a deal worth $36 million over six years. Canucks GM Jim Benning replaced Markstrom with the Capitals’ former No. 1, Braden Holtby, for a two-year deal totaling $8.6 million. The swap essentially scaled back Vancouver’s cap hit by $1.3 million at the position, more than enough to cover the one year remaining on Thatcher Demko’s deal. And it’s possible Demko, so sharp in the postseason, ends up No. 1.
The Wild, after moving Devan Dubnyk to the Sharks earlier in the week, hired Cam Talbot away from Calgary after his one year with the Flames. Once a workhorse for the Oilers (42 wins in 2016-17), it’s Talbot’s chance to be a No. 1 again at age 33.
The Senators, who appeared to have made three excellent first-round picks Tuesday in the draft, also will have a new No. 1 stopper in Matt Murray, the former two-time Cup winner with Pittsburgh. Traded to the Senators earlier in the week as a restricted free agent, Murray banked a new deal worth $25 million over the next four seasons.
Draft remains hit or miss
No question, the draft, conducted Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, feeds the world’s best and brightest young stars to the NHL. Clubs calculate their futures, payrolls, and fortunes around some 200-plus kids, age 18 or 19.
The Rangers, for instance, believe they added a generational talent Tuesday by grabbing Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 pick. Without a doubt, the highly driven left winger has the size (6 feet 2 inches, 200 pounds) and skill perhaps to one day help the Blueshirts secure what would be only their second Stanley Cup title since 1940.
Yet there are no guarantees in any of it, other than the fact that virtually every first-round pick will play at least one NHL game, if for no other reason than for clubs not to suffer the indignity of constant media reminders that their Round 1 choice never came closer to the show than the Zamboni entrance.
The Bruins have had their ample share of those first-round busts over the last 20 years, including Lars Jonsson, D (No. 7, 2000); Hannu Toivonen, G (No. 29, 2002); Matt Lashoff, D (No. 22, 2005); Zach Hamill, C (No. 8, 2007); Joe Colborne, C, (No. 6, 2008); Jordan Caron, F (No. 25, 2009); and Malcolm Subban, G, (No. 24, 2012). An ugly bunch.
It also remains to be seen if 2015 first-rounders Jakub Zboril (D) and Zach Senyshyn (F) ever land steady NHL work. Thus far, they have combined for eight games.
Once beyond the opening round, the rest of the draft, Rounds 2 through 7, is a stark reminder of the swing-and-miss nature of the entire exercise.
For instance, the drafts of 2010, 2011, and 2012, each of which had 30 players chosen in the opening round, included the selection of 542 more players across 18 rounds. A total of 292 of those selections, or 53.9 percent, never played a single NHL game. Another 55 players in those rounds saw action in no more than 10 games. Total bustouts: 347, or 64 percent.
Amid all the failure, age is the driving factor. The overwhelming majority of players are 18 years old. By age 20, in fact, they’ve “aged out” of the process and are free to hunt the market as free agents.
So while Lafreniere is the rare kid to arrive with an adult’s body ready to labor in an adult world, most of them are still spindly teenagers, bodies and minds still developing, who look like they’ve just jumped out of the limo from the high school prom.
Long forgotten is the fact that the draft, up until the end of the 1970s, set the age of 20 for eligibility. The drop to 18 was the product of WHA competition and threats of lawsuits for the right to work.
Here we are, 40-plus years later, with GMs doing the best they can to make the most of their Clearasil cadets, and a near two-thirds failure rate once beyond the obvious high-end picks.
Buyouts before market opens
As predicted in late May, when the league and the Players Association forged a CBA extension centered on a flat cap ($81.5 million), a number of clubs flushed out some expensive, underperforming stock in the hours leading up to Friday’s free agent fest.
Among the biggest buyout surprises: Alexander Wennberg, the 26-year-old center chosen No. 14 overall by the Blue Jackets in 2014. The silky smooth Swede had three years left on his deal, at an annual cap hit of $4.9 million, but GM Jarmo Kekalainen sent him packing Thursday, in part to make cash available to pay for ex-Canadiens forward Max Domi (to average $5.3 million over the next two years).
Domi, the Blue Jackets hope, can evolve into a legit No. 2 center, which was Wennberg’s role until his production, and fit, slipped to third-line status the last three seasons under John Tortorella. Wennberg had his best year for the Jackets (13-46—59) in 2016-17, in Tortorella’s full season as bench boss, only to regress.
Wennberg has the skill set, including penalty killing and overall defensive play, to be a valuable addition for most clubs. With buyout money in hand, upward of $6 million spread over six years, on Friday he signed a one-year deal with the Panthers for $2.25 million.
Wennberg’s time in Columbus was never the same after he got drilled by a running elbow from Washington’s Tom Wilson, the beast of the East, in the 2017 playoffs. A new environment, new challenge, and new coach could see Wennberg reclaim top-six ice time.
The Predators not long ago had Kyle Turris, the No. 3 pick in the 2007 draft by the Coyotes, as their No. 2 center.
“But it didn’t last, for whatever reasons,” GM David Poile said midweek, after cutting Turris free with four years remaining, each with a $6 million cap hit.
Turris, 31, will receive $2 million per year through the spring of 2028 because of the buyout. He hooked on Friday with Edmonton for two years for a cap hit $1.65 million per year. His offense sputtered the last three seasons, for whatever reason.
Ex-Boston College goalie Cory Schneider, once the heir to Martin Brodeur in New Jersey, appeared in only 39 games for the Devils the last two seasons. New GM Tom Fitzgerald took him off the books Thursday, buying out of the $12 million total he had coming the next two seasons.
In 2013, the Devils gave up a first-round pick (No. 9 overall) to acquire Schneider from Vancouver. The Canucks cashed the pick in for Bo Horvat, a cornerstone in their offense, while Schneider’s game never took flight in Newark. He finished 115-133-50 there, after a promising 55-26-8 start with Vancouver.
Commissioner Gary Bettman opened the draft Tuesday with a brief comment about the start of the 2020-21 season, saying the league was targeting Jan. 1 as opening day. In May, the commish was steadfast with his belief that his league would stage an 82-game season. If so, that means Game No. 82 would be approximately mid-July, with a Stanley Cup wrap by mid-September. Logic, if it exists any longer, speaks more to the 60-game schedule that the league adopted in the years immediately following World War II. Quite fitting, considering the ongoing war with the pandemic … If Jan. 1 holds, training camps likely would begin at the start of December, meaning the seven clubs that did not qualify in July for return to practice and play will have been off the ice for nine months … In the aforementioned three drafts, 2010-12, there were but three players in the top 12 picks who ranked as total busts. All three were big defensemen from the Western Hockey League. In 2010, the Rangers burned the No. 10 pick on Dylan McIlrath (6-5, 230 pounds) from Moose Jaw. At 28, he’s still hanging on with the Red Wings, only 66 NHL games on his résumé. The following year, the Avalanche spent No. 11 on Duncan Siemens (6-3, 210) of the Saskatoon Blades. He called it quits after 2018-19, with only 20 NHL games logged. Finally, the Islanders used the No. 4 pick in 2012 on Edmonton Oil King Griffin Reinhart (6-3, 216). He played in but 37 NHL games before finally joining the Kunlun Red Star last season in the KHL … GM Bill Guerin’s retooling of the Wild, which sent starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk to the Sharks, also delivered ex-Bruins prospect Ryan Donato to San Jose. Dubnyk lost his No. 1 gig to Alex Stalock, a former Shark himself, in 2019-20, while Donato’s ice time crashed to an average 10:38, lowest of all Wild skaters to play in at least 50 games. Like a lot of shooters, Donato runs hottest when he is confident. It will be high on coach Bob Boughner’s to-do list to find ways for Donato, 24, to recapture it. He has the shot. Shift-to-shift application has been the issue … The Blue Jackets picked up Domi in a swap for Josh Anderson, the big (6-3, 220), fast-skating right winger whose production fell to a meager 1-3—4 in 26 games last season, in part because of injury. He signed with the Canadiens on Friday for seven years and a gross take $38.5 million. The Habs have at least improved their size up front and net drive … Even with newcomer Craig Smith aboard, the Bruins must improve their grind factor, which proved to be their fatal flaw again when bumped out of the postseason by the Lightning for a second time in three seasons. They need bodies to get in and under that tough Tampa Bay defense corps. Trent Frederic, a first-round pick in 2016, will be one candidate. “Freddy,” 6-2 and 200 pounds, topped the AHL with 148 penalty minutes in 2019-20. So he’s rambunctious and has the requisite gumption. However, at the moment, he’s a bottom-six candidate at best. It’s also likely center Jack Studnicka (6-2) opens 2020-21 with the Boston varsity. He can play higher in the order, but it remains to be seen if he can drive the net, hold position down low … Another surprise buyout was Justin Abdelkader in Detroit, with a cap hit of $4.25 million each of the next three seasons. His production the last two seasons: an anemic 6-16—22 in 120 games. Once Pavel Datsyuk headed back to Russia (still playing with Yekaterinburg at age 42), the ex-Michigan State standout began to bottom out … Like Mason Langenbrunner getting taken by the Bruins, where dad Jamie Langenbrunner is one of GM Don Sweeney’s top lieutenants, the Red Wings plucked Kienan Draper with the 187th pick in the draft. Dad Kris Draper was a key to the franchise resurgence in the late ’90s. Not claimed: Danny Weight, son of former Rangers standout Doug Weight. Danny, a left winger, played last season with BCHL Penticton … The Maple Leafs want, and need, to be tougher to play against, albeit with no cap room to import some gritty forwards or add real presence on their blue line. The only remedy still seems to be finding a trade partner for right winger William Nylander, 24, who might have 40-goal potential. He also has a cap hit of just under $7 million through the spring of 2024 … Sad to hear of the passing of Bobby Miller, the onetime UNH winger who was among the early waves of successful Yanks to suit up for the Bruins in the late ’70s (after he played for the 1976 US Olympic squad in Innsbruck). Great wheels and net sense, as a rookie he was one of 11 of Don Cherry’s Lunchpailers in 1977-78 to pot at least 20 goals. Miller, who grew up in Billerica and starred with the high school team, was 64 … The other 10 Bruins with 20 or more goals in 1977-78 were: Peter McNab, Terry O’Reilly, Stan Jonathan, Bobby Schmautz, Rick Middleton, Jean Ratelle, Wayne Cashman, Gregg Sheppard, Brad Park (the lone defenseman on the list), and Don Marcotte.