Six weeks ago, the summer of 2020 seemed like prime time to hit free agency with the NHL’s salary cap poised to potentially take its biggest jump in years.
Not so much anymore. The entire world has changed, and the trickle-down effect is just starting to sink in for free agents.
“I don’t think players truly grasp just how much the world has changed,” one prominent agent said Tuesday. “One thing I’ve learned working with players is that they have a hard time accepting going backward financially, but that’s what is going to happen.
“This pandemic is going to have a tremendous impact. There is no way to sugarcoat it.”
Flat will be the new up, at least when it comes to the NHL’s salary cap for next season – whenever that will begin. Teams are currently running scenarios with the salary cap remaining flat at $81.5 million for next season, with optimistic cases looking at a $1 million increase.
With few exceptions, that likely means many free agents will have to prepare to accept significantly less than what they might have envisioned.
How many teams can now afford to offer Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall a long-term deal with a $10-million-plus cap hit if the cap might remain flat for three or four years until the players can pay back the $550 million or so in lost revenue that they might owe the owners?
“There’s not going to be a big market for top UFAs,” another agent said. “Teams like St. Louis and Tampa Bay – they have no available cap space. It’s the bottom feeders that will have the most money to spend, but they usually aren’t attractive to top free agents, and their owners don’t like to spend dumb money anyway. How many teams are going to be able to give you what you want? So many players are kicking themselves, wishing they had signed last year.”
The impending squeeze might also make it more difficult for teams to re-sign key cogs, like captain Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis, defenceman Torey Krug in Boston and goaltender Jacob Markstrom in Vancouver.
There may be creative workarounds, such as players trading dollars for term. Players may also be willing to sign shorter-term or even one-year deals to try and cash in again later, but that would also likely involve giving up significant security.
“It might warrant serious discussion,” an agent said.
Just about the only guarantee that can be offered is if the NHL hands out the Stanley Cup in late summer, as commissioner Gary Bettman said again on Wednesday remains the hope, is that this free agency will look different than any of the rest.
“It’s going to be a true frenzy,” the first agent predicted. “The idea of taking summer vacation and having a second wave of free agency won’t happen. It’s going to be a quick transition, signings for three or four days, then a quick transition to salary arbitration and expedited hearings. And then boom, right into the next season.”
This 2019-20 season isn’t over, but it’s not too early to look ahead to this summer’s crop of free agents.
Here are the Top 25 pending players available for the 2020 Free Agent Frenzy:
Top 2020 Free Agents
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli