2020 NHL Free Agency: Live Grades for the Biggest Signings

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2020

2020 NHL Free Agency: Live Grades for the Biggest Signings

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    With the 2020 NHL draft now history, the annual free-agent market began at noon ET on Friday. It usually begins on July 1, but COVID-19 forced the league to shift its offseason calendar.

    The opening hours of free agency tend to see a flurry of signings as teams quickly snap up the best unrestricted free-agent talent. With the removal of the one-week interview period in the new collective bargaining agreement, general managers must now wait until the market opens to make their bids to available players.

    A flattened salary cap of $81.5 million, however, could put a damper on the usual frenzy of signings. It could result in some of the top talent taking their time to evaluate offers, while limited cap space hampers efforts by some general managers to make competitive bids.

    Nevertheless, there are several players who should draw plenty of attention in the UFA market. The notables include defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, left-winger Taylor Hall and Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom.

    Here are our grades of the biggest signings on the opening day of NHL free agency.

Vegas Golden Knights Sign Alex Pietrangelo

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Vegas Golden Knights landed the biggest fish in this year's unrestricted free-agent pond, signing Alex Pietrangelo to a long-term contract. It took considerable bait as they inked him to a seven-year, $61.6 million deal with a no-movement clause. The annual average value is $8.8 million.

    Before becoming a free agent, the 30-year-old Pietrangelo spent his entire NHL career with the St. Louis Blues. One of the league's elite defensemen, he captained the Blues to their first Stanley Cup in 2019. A big, skilled all-around blueliner, the 6'3" 210-pounder netted 40 or more points eight times in the last 10 seasons.

    The lack of a true blue-line standout was considered the Golden Knights' Achilles heel since joining the league in 2017-18. While Shea Theodore has steadily blossomed into a top-two defenseman, Pietrangelo brings the experience, leadership and championship pedigree the Golden Knights need to contend for the Stanley Cup.

    Cap Friendly indicates Pietrangelo's contract pushes the Golden Knights above the salary cap by $6.9 million. They must shed salary to become cap compliant. There's also the long-term risk that this deal could become a cap headache as his skills decline in the latter years of the contract. In the short term, however, the Golden Knights addressed a glaring roster weakness by signing this year's top free agent.

    Grade: A

Buffalo Sabres Sign Taylor Hall

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    In the most surprising signing of the 2020 NHL free-agent period, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported the Buffalo Sabres inked Taylor Hall to a one-year, $8 million contract. Cap Friendly indicates it's a $7 million base salary with a $1 million signing bonus for the 28-year-old left winger.

    Landing the top forward among this year's UFA class is a bold move by rookie Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams. The winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy in 2017-18 following a career-best 93-point performance, Hall has exceeded the 50-point plateau seven times in his 10 NHL seasons. He spent 2019-20 split between the New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes, totaling 52 points in 65 games.

    Despite those consistent numbers, Hall has limited playoff experience. It was assumed he'd sign with a playoff club, perhaps even a Stanley Cup contender. Instead, he joined a team that last reached the playoffs in 2011. However, the Sabres have Jack Eichel, and playing alongside one of the NHL's elite centers could provide a big boost to Hall's production.

    If Hall plays well alongside Eichel in 2020-21, he can test next year's UFA market in hopes of landing a more lucrative deal with a contender. Should he and Eichel carry the Sabres into the postseason, perhaps Adams can convince the winger to stay in Buffalo with an expensive, long-term offer.

    For at least one season, this should work out well for both sides.

    Grade: A

Montreal Canadiens Sign Tyler Toffoli

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has had a busy offseason, making trades for winger Josh Anderson, goaltender Jake Allen and defenseman Joel Edmundson. He's now made a big splash in the unrestricted free-agent market, signing right wing Tyler Toffoli to a four-year contract worth an annual average value of $4.25 million.

    This was a savvy move by Bergevin. Toffoli, 28, was among the top forwards in this year's free-agent market. The winger's new annual average value is down from the $4.6 million of his previous contract, but he's getting the security of four years during a period of economic uncertainty.

    Toffoli spent most of his eight NHL seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, winning a Stanley Cup in 2014 and garnering a reputation as a skilled two-way forward who can play right wing or center. Shipped to the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 17, he was allowed to play a more offensive role. Toffoli tallied 10 points in 10 regular-season games and four points in seven playoff contests.

    A lack of scoring punch was an issue for the Canadiens in recent years. Adding Toffoli (as well as Anderson) should provide a big boost to their offense. His speed and two-way skills will also make him a useful addition to their penalty kill.

    Grade: A

Washington Capitals Sign Henrik Lundqvist

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported the Washington Capitals have signed goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

    Lundqvist, 38, spent 15 seasons with the New York Rangers, but he lost playing time this past season to young netminders Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. The Rangers bought out the final year of his contract on Sept. 30, making him an unrestricted free agent.

    The 2011-12 Vezina Trophy winner sits third all-time among NHL goalies with 11 30-win seasons, but he is no longer an elite NHL starting goaltender. However, he should be an effective backup and mentor to sophomore Ilya Samsonov.

    This signing is also an affordable, short-term move to replace Braden Holtby. The 31-year-old former Capitals starter is also an unrestricted free agent.

    Grade: A

Dallas Stars Sign Anton Khudobin

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    Matt Strasen/Associated Press

    Anton Khudobin's foray into the market as an unrestricted free agent didn't last long. TSN's Pierre LeBrun reports the Dallas Stars brought him back into the fold with a three-year, $10 million contract.

    The 34-year-old Khudobin has been a reliable backup goaltender over the course of his 11 NHL seasons. He has a career regular-season goals-against average of 2.46 and a .919 save percentage.

    Over the last two seasons, he formed a solid tandem for the Stars with starter Ben Bishop. A knee injury to Bishop thrust Khudobin into the starter's job during the 2020 playoffs. He was outstanding, carrying the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final with a 2.69 GAA and .917 SP.

    Given Khudobin's playoff heroics and Bishop's injury history, the Stars couldn't afford to let him get away. He gets a reasonable pay raise over the $2.5 million annual average value of his previous contract while keeping the Stars' goalie tandem intact at an affordable price.

    Grade: A

St. Louis Blues Sign Torey Krug

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The St. Louis Blues parted ways with defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, but they didn't take long to find a replacement. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Tom Timmermann reported they signed Torey Krug to a seven-year, $45.5 million contract.

    Timmermann indicated Krug's new deal, worth an annual average value of $6.5 million, is roughly $2 million less than Pietrangelo likely would've received. Nevertheless, it's a big raise over the four-year, $21 million contract the 29-year-old blueliner had with the Boston Bruins.

    It also comes with a full no-trade clause until 2024-25. 

    The 5'9", 186-pound Krug is a different defenseman than the 6'3", 210-pound Pietrangelo. While the former Blues captain was a big, skilled two-way blueliner, the smaller Krug is known for his offensive abilities and will bring a boost to the team's production, especially on the power play.

    He's netted 40 or more points in all but one of the last seven seasons. He was on pace for a fourth straight 50-point campaign (49 in 61 games) when COVID-19 derailed the 2019-20 season.

    While Krug is more affordable than Pietrangelo, the length of his contract could become an issue if his production declines in the final half of the deal.

    With the Blues expected to re-sign restricted free agent Vince Dunn, they are projected to go over the $81.5 million salary cap. They must shed some salary. They could also garner short-term wiggle room by placing sidelined winger Vladimir Tarasenko on long-term injured reserve.                     

    Grade: B+

Calgary Flames Sign Jacob Markstrom

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Calgary Flames sought an established starting goaltender following Cam Talbot's departure to the Minnesota Wild via free agency. Sportsnet's Chris Johnston reported the Flames secured the biggest goalie signing of the day by landing Jacob Markstrom with a six-year, $36 million contract.

    Markstrom, 30, had been with the Vancouver Canucks since 2013 and established himself as a reliable starter behind a porous defense corps. Over the last five seasons, his goals-against average was between 2.63 and 2.77, while his save percentage remained at .910 or higher. Those stats should improve behind a better defense corps in Calgary.

    The Canucks attempted to re-sign Markstrom but weren't willing to go as high as the Flames to keep him. They instead turned to Braden Holtby on a more affordable two-year deal.

    This is a big splash by the Flames. The $6 million average annual salary is market value, but the six years are a little long for a netminder who turns 31 in January. It could prove worthwhile if Markstrom brings the much-needed stability they need between the pipes. However, it could also become burdensome on the Flames' cap if his performance declines over the final years of the deal.

    This signing also ensures David Rittich will remain in a backup role next season. With Markstrom locked up long-term, the 28-year-old Rittich could be facing his final season with the Flames. He's slated to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

    Grade: B+

Vancouver Canucks Sign Braden Holtby

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Vancouver Canucks have moved on from starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom. TSN's Farhan Lalji reported they signed Braden Holtby to a two-year, $8.6 million contract, worth an annual average value of $4.3 million.

    This is a significant pay decrease for the 31-year-old Holtby, who earned $6.1 million annually on a five-year contract with the Washington Capitals. A Vezina Trophy winner in 2016, he backstopped the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in 2018.

    Holtby, however, struggled over the last two seasons. The writing was on the wall when promising Ilya Samsonov challenged him for the starter's job in Washington last season.

    With Markstrom seeking a lucrative long-term deal, the Canucks opted for a more affordable option. Holtby will have an opportunity for a fresh start in Vancouver. He'll also allow the Canucks more time to develop promising Thatcher Demko into a starter. His contract lacks a no-movement clause, which could allow him to be left unprotected in next year's expansion draft.

    Grade: B+

New Jersey Devils Sign Corey Crawford

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    After 13 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks (10 as their starting goalie), Corey Crawford hit the unrestricted free-agent market Friday. He didn't need long to find a new club, inking a two-year, $7.8 million contract with the New Jersey Devils, per the team.

    Crawford, 35, was once among the NHL's elite goaltenders, backstopping the Blackhawks to Stanley Cups in 2013 and 2015. He won 30 or more games in six of seven seasons from 2010-11 to 2016-17, sporting a career goals-against average of 2.45, a .918 save percentage and 26 shutouts.

    Two concussions and vertigo-like symptoms, however, sidelined Crawford for long periods in 2017-18 and 2018-19. While his performance rebounded last season, he and the Blackhawks weren't able to reach an agreement on a new contract.

    The Devils should benefit from Crawford's addition. They needed a reliable veteran to share the goaltending duties with Mackenzie Blackwood after buying out Cory Schneider on Thursday.

    Crawford's age and recent injury history should keep him in a backup role. His experience and competitiveness will make him a good mentor for Blackwood at an affordable, short-term price.

    Grade: B

Anaheim Ducks Sign Kevin Shattenkirk

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    After a successful season with the Tampa Bay Lightning that culminated in a Stanley Cup championship, Kevin Shattenkirk is moving on to his third team since 2019. TSN reported the 31-year-old defenseman signed a three-year, $11.7 million contract with the Anaheim Ducks.

    This caps an impressive comeback for Shattenkirk. On July 1, 2017, he signed a lucrative four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers. After two difficult seasons, the Rangers bought out the remainder of his contract on Aug. 1, 2019. Four days later, the Lightning signed Shattenkirk to a one-year, $1.8 million deal.

    Shattenkirk proved a solid fit with the Lightning, tallying 34 points in 70 regular-season games while averaging 18:54 in time on ice per game. He was clutch in the playoffs with three goals and 13 points in 25 games, including two game-winners.

    The Ducks are a retooling club hoping to return to playoff contention next season. Shattenkirk's experience, puck-moving skills and right-hand shot should make him a good addition to their blue-line corps as a second-pairing, right-side defenseman.

    Grade: B

Minnesota Wild Sign Cam Talbot

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Wild needed an experienced starting goaltender after trading Devan Dubnyk on Monday to the San Jose Sharks. Cap Friendly indicates they signed Cam Talbot to a three-year, $11 million contract.

    Talbot, 33, put up solid numbers early in his career with the New York Rangers and Edmonton Oilers. However, his struggles in 2018-19 saw him traded by the Oilers to the Philadelphia Flyers, and he became a free agent last summer.

    The Flames took a chance on Talbot last year, signing him to a one-year, $2.75 million deal. He responded with a solid bounce-back performance, sporting a 2.63 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 26 regular-season games. His playoff numbers were more impressive with a 2.42 GAA and .924 SP in 10 postseason starts.

    It's now the Wild who'll take a chance. The annual cap hit ($3.67 million) is affordable, but the three-year term could be a gamble for a goaltender who's approaching his mid-30s. Talbot will split the duties with Alex Stalock, lightening the latter's workload while providing the Wild additional time to develop the promising Kaapo Kahkonen.

    Grade: B