NHL Free Agency opened at 12pm EDT on Friday, marking another first for the NHL in what can only be described as the wackiest year in league history. Typically held on July 1st annually, free agency was pushed back by more than three months this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now just two days after completing the NHL Entry Draft, all seven Canadian teams were poised to improve their lineups by throwing years and dollars at this year’s free agent class. As a result of the pandemic, however, the NHL salary cap will remain flat going into next season, making today a more challenging task than years past for NHL general managers.
Regardless, day one was action-filled with an abundance of surprises across the league and especially in Western Canada. From Vancouver to Calgary and Edmonton, here’s how things went down.
After a magical playoff run that saw the underdog Vancouver Canucks fall one game short of the Western Conference Final in Edmonton this summer, General Manager Jim Benning had a lot on his plate heading into the offseason. Two-time team MVP Jacob Markstrom, longtime defensive defenseman Chris Tanev, and recently acquired winger Tyler Toffoli were set to hit the open market on Friday.
Leading up to Friday, it was said that the Canucks were still in discussions with Markstrom, who was also considering long-term offers from the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. When all was said and done, the Canucks couldn’t compete with Calgary’s 6-year, $36 million offer, and nor should they have.
24-year-old goaltender Thatcher Demko showed in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs that he has the ability to backstop this team and with the 2021 Seattle expansion draft looming, Vancouver couldn’t afford to lose him to the new division rival. Unfortunately, that meant losing Markstrom to another division rival in the Calgary Flames.
The Canucks did recoup their loss in net by signing 2018 Stanley Cup Champion and former Washington Capital Braden Holtby to a 2-year, $8.6 million deal to share the net with Demko. Holtby struggled last season, posting an .897 save percentage on a defensively superior Capitals team, but has been considered one of the league’s premier goaltenders for the last several years.
The Canucks are banking on him finding his old form on the west coast, but overall, it’s a low risk move. Holtby’s contract comes with a 4-team no trade list, but he’s able to be exposed in the expansion draft to Seattle and will certainly be pushed by Demko for the number one job.
Vancouver also lost defender Chris Tanev to the Flames, leaving a giant hole on their blueline. The team is reportedly interested in the services of Victoria’s Tyson Barrie, who provides more of an offensive punch than Tanev, but won’t give the Canucks as much stability in their own end should they sign him.
Richmond-native Troy Stecher is also currently on the market, potentially leaving another gap on the Canucks’ blueline. With just over $7.9 million in cap space remaining, Vancouver has also yet to re-sign top-six forward Tyler Toffoli, who could very well be on his way out of town too.
One positive for the Canucks was the two-year signing of forward Tyler Motte for $1.225 million per year. Motte plays big minutes for them on the penalty kill and is hard to play against. He also has some offensive talent, as he showcased in this year’s playoffs with multiple two-goal games.
There’s still lots of time left to turn this offseason into a positive one, but day one was a loss for the Vancouver Canucks.
As mentioned, the Calgary Flames managed to pry both goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Chris Tanev from Vancouver, solidifying their back end.
Markstrom gives the Flames a major upgrade in goal not only strengthens their current roster but widens their competitive window. Calgary has been sorely lacking in goaltending for years, and while Cam Talbot provided the Flames with some stability this past season, it’s no question that Markstrom is the elite goaltender they’ve been looking for ever since Miikka Kiprusoff’s retirement in 2013.
Markstrom posted a career-high .918 save percentage in 2019-20 along with 23 wins in only 43 games played. He almost single-handedly carried the Canucks into the playoffs and is the main reason they got out of the first round against the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues.
Tanev, on the other hand, brings 514 games of NHL experience to the Flames, and is coming off the first season in his career in which he appeared in every game for the Canucks. He’s been bit by the injury bug many times in his career, and that’s certainly a concern for the Flames, who just inked him to a 4-year, $20 million contract.
Still, he’s been one of the most defensively sound defensemen in the NHL for several years and can provide some offense if surrounded by the right players. He put up a career-high 20 points this past season skating alongside rookie sensation Quinn Hughes, and while he won’t have that luxury, does have some talented LHD to be paired up with in Calgary like captain Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin.
The Flames did lose Tobias Reider on a one-year deal to the Buffalo Sabres as well as defenseman T.J. Brodie on a four-year deal to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Tanev quickly filled that slot. There’s work to be done still, but day one was a grand slam for the Calgary Flames, who will look to bounce back from a first round loss to the Dallas Stars in this year’s playoffs.
The Oilers didn’t have a particularly bad opening day of free agency, but they also didn’t make any moves that greatly improve the team that was eliminated by the 12th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round.
After being in on aforementioned goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the Oilers lost out to Calgary, despite reportedly offering more term at a slightly lower average annual value. The Oilers are certainly still in the market for a goaltender to solidify a tandem with Mikko Koskinen, but some of the biggest names in Markstrom, Khudobin, Crawford, and Holtby are already off the market.
The team did sign forwards Tyler Ennis and Kyle Turris to two team-friendly deals but failed to address their need in goal and on the blueline, especially after it was announced that defenseman Oscar Klefbom may miss all of next season due to shoulder surgery. General Manager Ken Holland will look to add a goaltender and defenseman in the coming days.
The Jets’ biggest acquisition of the day actually came via trade, when the club acquired centre Paul Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Carl Dahlstrom and a fourth-round draft pick in 2022. The deal gives the Jets some extra depth down the middle and will provide a boost to their second powerplay unit this upcoming season.
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff also re-upped the contracts of defensemen Nathan Beaulieu (2-year, $2.5M) and Luca Sbisa (1-year, $800K), as well as winger Mason Appleton (2-year, $1.8M). It might not seem like much for a team looking to rebound from a loss in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but this Jets team has lots of the pieces necessary to contend.
With a healthy Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele back in the lineup and Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes, the club isn’t in need of a major overhaul.