During the past few months, the phrase “in these uncertain times” has entered the zeitgeist or at the very least entered the lexicon of advertising copy. The phrase also is applicable to what the National Hockey League’s newest free-agent class will experience when the horn sounds at noon ET on Oct. 9.
“I mean, no one knows what next season is going to look like or even if there’s going to be a season,” said one NHL general manager.
But assuming the 2020-21 season begins in December or January — which is the current projection — there is uncertainty far beyond the schedule. The COVID-19 pandemic has terraformed the financial landscape of the league. The new collective bargaining agreement installed a flat salary cap of $81.5 million for next season, and possibly more, as a reaction to the massive revenue losses for the NHL and its teams. Furthering the financial constraints are the internal budgets established by teams that have gone months without significant revenue streams and are uncertain when they’re flow again.
What does that means for the 2020 free-agent frenzy?
One player agent told ESPN: “The big guys will go quick, like they always do. Then there will be a bit of a cooling-off period, probably a little longer than normal because we’ve got so much time.”
As one NHL general manager explained, “After the biggest names, who probably know where the want to end up, I think you’re going to have some players that put themselves out there just to get a deal done, for security.”
Another wrinkle, according to a few player agents: There might be more unrestricted free agents than anticipated. “There are going to be teams that aren’t qualifying some [restricted free agents],” said one agent.
It’ll be a frenzy like no other, and that includes on the calendar: a tradition in July is being held in October. Typically, a lot of business gets down between the start of the frenzy and the July 4 holiday in the United States. We’re not sure if Columbus Day presents the same urgency.
What hasn’t changed: There are a collection of unrestricted free agents available who can alter the fortunes of teams, as well as some they would be better off avoiding. Here’s a look at the key players hitting the market, organized into different tiers. We left out some veterans who could be close to retirement (Mikko Koivu), ones we feel are likely to only sign with one team (Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Justin Williams) and some, such as Patrick Marleau, who might fit into both categories.