Why this will be the 'worst possible offseason' for NHL free agents

This is what a pending unrestricted free agent in the NHL is thinking right now:

  • He doesn’t know when the offseason begins or when it ends or how long it lasts.

  • He doesn’t know how the coronavirus shutdown will affect the financial ability of NHL teams to offer him a contract, nor how much escrow will be withheld from that contract to make up the owners’ revenue shortfall this season.

  • He doesn’t know what the salary cap for next season looks like, or what it could look like for the one after that, considering that fans might not be buying tickets and flooding through turnstiles until 2021.

  • Heck, he doesn’t even know if he should be hitting the Peloton so he can be ready for summertime hockey or preparing for next fall.

“I think this the worst possible offseason to hit the market,” said a source on the players’ side, without a scintilla of hyperbole.

There’s a robust 2020 NHL unrestricted free-agency class facing this uncertainty: Arizona Coyotes winger Taylor Hall, St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie are among them. There are restricted free agents too, as young stars like Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders, Max Domi of the Montreal Canadiens and Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Columbus Blue Jackets all look for significant new contracts.

From the stars to the rank-and-file, NHL players seeking a new contact this summer are staring into nothingness right now.

The picture will gain clarity when the salary cap does. The current assumption is that the league and the NHL Players’ Association are going to settle on an artificial number that’s linked to revenue. For months, teams have been operating under the assumption that there would be a salary-cap ceiling of at least $ 84 million. Anything below that would be a disaster for a handful of teams. Keeping the cap at $ 81.5 million, the 2019-20 season’s ceiling, would be a disaster for those teams and then another group of them.

If the salary cap should drop under that? One source termed it as “Armageddon” for team rosters.

Assuming the cap is stagnant, that immediately takes some teams that would otherwise spend on elite unrestricted free agents out of the market. The Maple Leafs, for example, would have roughly $ 4.6 million to spend, with 16 players signed.

Then there’s the new economic reality for the league, no matter what happens to the 2019-20 season. Next season, we could see a few weeks of empty arenas or games with limited capacity. Even when the doors are flung open, no one’s sure how many fans are paying to walk through them. It’s completely unclear when the revenue faucet is going to be turned all the way open, given the uncertainty about fan attendance in a gate-driven league.

Thus, the franchises that hover around the floor aren’t bidding for high-end unrestricted free agents. The midlevel teams could shy away, too, depending on cash flow.

So what’s a free agent to do in these uncertain times?

Take it year by year.

In speaking to a few people around the league this week, there’s a sense that some of the elite free agents may choose to take one- or two-year contracts instead of going long-term. That way, they can come back to the free-agent market as a 28- or 29-year-old when there’s a better sense of normalcy and stability, both in the NHL and globally.

Take a player like Hall. He turns 29 in November. He’s been a point-per-game player and won the Hart Trophy. At a minimum under normal circumstances, he’s getting $ 9 million annually as a free-agent left wing, like Jeff Skinner received last summer. But what we’re experiencing is anything but normal: What if the highest offer he can muster is $ 7 million annually? Does he take that over seven or eight years? Or does he take that for one year, and then take his chances next summer when the marketplace may have improved?

Because if I’m Taylor Hall, a one-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes for a decent raise is looking pretty good right now, given all of this uncertainty.

Clearly, for many reasons, I’m not Taylor Hall.

He told The Athletic on Wednesday that he doesn’t have much interest in that kind of deal. “I don’t really want to play through a contract year again,” he said. “Whether it was the reason I had an off-year or not, I’d rather get some security and try and sign a longer-term deal.”

A short-term deal has its risks — primarily injury — which is why you don’t see more hockey players taking big-money short-term deals for, say, a shot at the Stanley Cup. (When’s the last one we had? Marian Hossa with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008-09?) Given the ravages of the sport, if you have a chance to sign a long-term deal, you take it.

So there’s another option for free agents this summer: The “backloaded” contract.

Last summer, Skinner signed an eight-year, $ 72-million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. The first six years had a base salary of $ 10 million, with some signing-bonus money peppered in. The last two years had a combined $ 12 million in real dollars, to help bring down the average annual value of the whole deal to $ 9 million.

What if players take a deal like that this summer, but reverse it? Go cheaper on the real dollars early to help ease the economic strains on teams, and then make the glut of it later on.

It’s not like this hasn’t been attempted before. The Devils’ Travis Zajac started at $ 3.5 million and hit a peak of $ 6.5 million on his current contract, signed in 2013.

It’s an option that agents and teams are discussing among themselves, but it might not ultimately work. There are salary variance rules the NHL inserted into the current collective bargaining agreement to combat cap-circumventing contracts. Year-to-year, a player’s salary may not increase or decrease by more than 35%, and his salary can never be below 50% of its highest value year. So those early years’ savings can only be so much.

Then there’s the structure itself. Depending on trade restrictions in the contract, a player usually has his salary decrease near the end of a long-term deal to make it more appealing for another team to take on that contract — the cap hit is constant, but the real dollars are lower. So a backloaded deal doesn’t make sense if that’s the ultimate goal.

The biggest issue is that structuring a long-term deal like this still might not get players the money they were expecting this summer as free agents, or in previous points of their negotiations.

Look, we get it. Many of the players we’ve mentioned here are millionaires, and this is impacting how many more times over they’ll be millionaires. Real-world economic and health concerns supersede sports economic anxiety, and no one’s losing sight of that.

But the free-agency market is worth analyzing as one consequence of the larger turmoil facing the NHL for the foreseeable future, one domino in a row of tumbling bricks. Some players like Hall may take what they can get now. Others will continue that age-old tradition in sports for any time the current results are undesirable: They’ll wait ’til next year.

Jersey Fouls

From the New Jersey Devils and the Jersey Foul archives:

Like Dante’s Inferno, there are several levels of Foul here, including the curious use of hyphens on the nameplate. But the real bummer about this sweater is it reminds us that Miroslav Satan never wore No. 6 and never played for the Devils, thus depriving the franchise of incalculable revenue in jersey sales.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Just an incredible episode for you this week. We talk about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments regarding a return to sports (2:40). The newly retired Kris Versteeg reflects on his career, championship celebrations in Chicago, and the decision to hang up the skates after 11 seasons (11:54). P.K. Subban talks about his new game show, quarantine life with Lindsey Vonn and why he’s too old for TikTok. (33:45). In “Phil Kessel Loves Hot Dogs,” we question why the hockey community has put so much stock in Drew Doughty’s recent comments (49:17). Emily offers her thoughts on Colby Cave’s tragic death (53:31). Listen, review and subscribe here.

Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Hockey’s community

The hockey world tragically lost Oilers forward Colby Cave at 25, after he suffered a brain bleed last week. But then the hockey world inspirationally came together to honor his legacy. Hundreds of cars lined the shoulder of Highway 16 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, on Monday, in a socially distanced tribute to the player. It was also announced that the Oilers and Cave’s family have established the Colby Cave Memorial Fund. Proceeds from the fund will go toward community programs with an emphasis on mental health initiatives and providing access to sports for underprivileged children.

Losers: Buffalo Sabres

Pegula Sports and Entertainment once again made staff cuts and once again managed to kick a hornets’ nest with fans. John Vogl of The Athletic reports that PSE “has been examining cost-cutting measures for some time, and some of the firings may have come this summer regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pause created by coronavirus cancellations apparently accelerated the timeline.” Meaning that changes intended for the offseason were instead made during a pandemic. Among the terminations was vice president of communications Chris Bandura, considered by many around the NHL to be one of the best people in that job. He worked hard to make the Sabres look as good as possible. Really, really hard.

Winner: Sammy Blais

NHL players are in the middle of a quarantine, no one has any idea what the economic state of the league is going to be, and … pending RFA Sammy Blais agreed to a two-year, $ 3 million contract with the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday? Give that agent a raise.

Loser: Yekaterinburg Avtomobilist

The KHL team hired head coach Bill Peters, last seen resigning in shame from the Calgary Flames for a history of racial slurs and physical abuse against players. Peter had to wait an entire five months before finding another head-coaching job, this time in the world’s second-biggest hockey league. “I think as time goes on we all grow and improve and become better versions of ourselves, and I’m no different than that. You learn from all the experiences that you’re in, and you become better,” Peters said during a video conference call with Russian media. We still haven’t gotten over Peters saying in a letter that his racial slurs were “not directed at anyone in particular” after Akim Aliu said Peters “dropped the N-bomb several times” because he didn’t like the player’s choice of music.

Winner: The Nylanders

Look, their Tootsie Slide is open for criticism. But Alex and William Nylander deserve points for thrusting palm trees into the faces of all their quarantined teammates (quaran-teammates?). Extra credit goes to William for using the open shirt to distract from that socks-and-sandals atrocity.

Loser: Misinterpreting Drew

On a conference call this week, Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings said that (a) he doesn’t think the season will be restarted and (b) even if it was, the Stanley Cup championship will be a tainted one. Naturally, he took all kinds of flak for this because the Kings are a country mile out of the playoffs, but Doughty clearly acknowledged that his attitude would be different if they weren’t. Lost in all of this were a couple of very important things Doughty brought up, directly and indirectly. First, that he has a genuine concern for the health of players who will have their training cycles interrupted by summer hockey, sharing that he was “in pain all season [in 2016-17]” after participating in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in September. Second, his feelings on not returning to play shouldn’t be dismissed just because the Kings are out of it, because that’s the point: What players on any non-playoff team want to come back and play out the string in empty arenas, during a pandemic, just so the New York Islanders have the same number of games played as the Columbus Blue Jackets? It’s nuts.

Winner: NHL teams helping

Kudos to every NHL team that’s trying to raise money to help those in need during this difficult times. Specific shoutouts go to the Nashville Predators, who announced that they raised $ 2.7 million to help both with tornado and COVID-19 relief; and the Vancouver Canucks, who generated $ 248,848 for important causes during the coronavirus pandemic through an online 50-50 raffle.

Puck Headlines

  • In times of social distancing, Canada turns to … hockey sticks. “The City of Toronto has posted signs encouraging citizens to remain two meters apart “or about the length a hockey stick,” the sign reads. At Harvey’s, a Canadian fast food chain, debit card machines have been attached to the end of hockey sticks that drive-thru workers slide through the driver’s side window.”

  • Our Chris Peters runs down the biggest breakout prospects for all 31 NHL teams.

  • The All In Challenge is a virtual fundraising effort hoping to raise millions of dollars to provide food for children, the elderly and frontline workers during the coronavirus crisis via five charities: Meals on Wheels, No Kid Hungry, America’s Food Fund, World Central Kitchen and Feeding America. A few of the hockey-related auctions you can bid on: Henrik Lundqvist’s one-of-a-kind, game-used mask; choice of center ice Toronto Maple Leaf seats or a suite and Auston Matthews’ game-used jersey, including airfare and hotel; and skate and play with the 1994 Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers, a team that Mike Keenan will be coaching.

  • Helene Elliott argues for the cancellation of the rest of the regular season. “Cancel the remaining games, about 15% of the schedule, so ticket-holding fans can get their money back to buy necessities. Cancel those games so teams that were eliminated don’t have to go through a farce of a training camp to play a dozen games just so Commissioner Gary Bettman can say the season was complete.”

  • The NWHL appears to be expanding to Toronto. Here’s why they should put a team in Washington, D.C.

  • Puck Junk looks back at the best hockey cards of 1989-90, including the dawn of Eric Lindros rookie cards. Fans who came to the NHL post-Lindros have no idea how large the hype was for this guy.

  • Auston Matthews breaks down famous hockey plays in famous hockey movies.

Hockey TL; DR

Cool thought and investigation by Steve Whyno: What is the Keeper of the Cup doing now that there’s no reason to keep the Cup for anything?

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Highly recommend Emily Kaplan’s piece on Florence Schelling becoming a general manager in Switzerland. “It takes a lot of courage to be the first of something,” said Team USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield, a former teammate of Schelling’s at Northeastern. “It takes a really strong woman to be the first, and that’s Florence. But that doesn’t mean the second is any less strong. Once that barrier is broken, the floodgates open. I think women saw the announcement of Florence’s new role and their heads started spinning, thinking: ‘Can that be me one day? Can I do that? I didn’t know that was an option for me.'”

www.espn.com – NHL