By: Brennen Krikorian
Like most things in 2020, this year’s NHL free agency period was one of the wildest in recent memory.
In the past three seasons, the cap space that was allowed for teams had grown $1.5 to 2 million per year and was expected to be in the $84 to 87 million range this offseason prior to league suspension. Following the season restart, commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the public by stating that the cap space would remain at $81.5 million for the next few years as a result of the lost revenue due to COVID-19.
This meant that teams in cap trouble would have less availability for improvement and players heading into the market would most likely not get their desired pay.
On top of everything, the NHL is preparing for their new expansion team, the Seattle Kraken. Because of this, most teams did not look to sign their new players to long-term deals with the fear of losing them in the expansion draft.
Regardless, we were still able to see plenty of big-name players change cities and witness plenty of excitement over the past few weeks. The following are some of the biggest takeaways from the free agency period.
Montreal Builds off Impressive Bubble Run:
When the league decided they would expand the playoff format heading into the bubble, the Montreal Canadiens were the team most people thought would have the lowest chance of winning.
The Habs were ranked 24th in the league at the time of the restart at just 31-31-9 and were set to face off against arguably the hottest team in the league in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite the disbelief by everyone, Montreal was able to upset the Penguins in four games and took the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers to six games in the quarterfinals.
This team developed an identity in the bubble by having a defensive-minded attack and capitalizing on opposing teams’ mistakes. With the way that players such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki developed, the Habs were able to bring in a strong two-way forward in Josh Anderson at the expense of their defensive liability at the center position, Max Domi.
While Domi was not a strong defensive presence, his offensive abilities have been evident throughout his career.
The 25-year old tallied 116 points in just two seasons with the Canadiens, making it clear to GM Marc Bergevin that his scoring would need to be replaced. In steps Tyler Toffoli.
Toffoli signed a 4-year, $17 million contract with Montreal on October 12 following a 10-game stint with the Vancouver Canucks in which he was able to post 10 points in 10 games.
Now entering his ninth season in the league, Toffoli will be a focal point in Montreal’s struggling powerplay (ranked 22nd last season) and has the chance to score 25 goals for the second time in his career if he can stay healthy throughout the season.
Both of these players are able to provide offensive contributions from the blue line and have the ability to play the physical style of hockey that head coach Claude Julien preaches.
This team still has some question marks heading into next season which may hinder any Stanley Cup aspirations, but do not be surprised if this team is in the playoff hunt deep into the regular season.
Toronto Hoping Veteran Presence is the Answer:
For the past three seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs have underperformed more than any other organization.
Despite finishing in the top three of their division in each of the past three years (while eclipsing 100 points in both 2018 and 2019), the Leafs have yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
With stars such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander all under the age of 25, GM Kyle Dubas is hoping that the lack of veteran presence is what is holding them back from making a deep playoff run.
Dubas was able to use this free agency period to sign four players over the age of 30-years-old, with the additions of Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton, as well as defensemen T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian.
While Simmonds and Thornton’s days of lighting up the scoresheet are over, they are still two big, physical bodies who can make a difference in the defensive zone, as well as on the penalty kill. Not only can these two make an impact on the ice, but they can in the locker room as well. While neither of them has a Stanley Cup on their resume, they have both appeared in the finals, something not many current Maple Leaf players can say.
This championship experience will be crucial for Toronto as they are desperate to remove their label as playoff duds.
Brodie is a strong right-handed defenseman who will look to counter his expected partner Morgan Rielly, who is more offensive-minded. Bogosian will likely be in and out of the lineup throughout the season, but following his Stanley Cup win with Tampa Bay last season, he will be able to provide more playoff experience alongside Thornton and Simmonds.
On paper, this team looks built to be a contender in the East yet again.
Florida Fails to Improve on Promising Expectations:
Last season, Florida was widely regarded as one of the biggest free agency winners.
The signings of beloved head coach Joel Quenneville and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky gave serious hope to all Panthers fans that this team could be relevant in the playoffs in the near future.
However, a disappointing regular season saw the Panthers finish 10th in the Eastern Conference and lose to the New York Islanders in four games in the play-in round.
Heading into this season, Bobrovsky’s $10 million for the next six years looks like a mistake, especially with last year’s first-round pick Spencer Knight looking to make the NHL roster next season.
Florida finished the season with the fourth most goals against and made no major moves to fix their team defensively, implying that GM Bill Zito is banking on Bobrovsky to have a bounce back season.
The offense is why Florida was able to get wins last season, finishing sixth in goals for.
While you can be moderately successful relying on your team to outscore the opponent in the regular season, it becomes much harder to do without your top two goal scorers. Evgenii Dadonov signed a three-year deal with the Ottawa Senators after scoring 25 goals for the Panthers last season. Mike Hoffman is also gone following a team-high 29 goals in 2019-20.
The team was able to trade for veteran Patric Hornqvist from the Penguins, but his days of being a reliable goal scorer are behind him. Look for this team to sell at the deadline and go into yet another rebuild in the next few years.
Cover photo via: Getty Images
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