Usually the NHL off-season has a few weeks of build up. When the Stanley Cup is wrapped up in early June the combine would have just happened, the draft would be a couple weeks away and free agency another week after that. There's time for rumours to build and trades to come together, but this off-season feels more like a sprint.
It's going to come fast and it's going to come all at once.
In fact, you might say we've partially started the off-season already. With 29 teams on the sidelines, a few have already made trades, while others are taking calls. Certain off-season activities have already begun so while we're not officially there yet, we've got one toe in the water.
As the longest season in NHL history nears a close, here are a few key dates to keep in mind:
BUYOUT WINDOW: OPENS SEPT. 25
When the NHL and PA ratified a CBA extension just prior to returning to play, they had to take into account the uncertain financial picture. Lots of revenue was lost this season and it's unclear how long it'll be until any fans are allowed back in NHL arenas, let alone at full capacity. The cap is staying flat at $81.5 million for at least next season and then, well, we'll see.
However, compliance buyouts were not part of this CBA agreement. It was suspected they could be, since it would allow teams to pay out contracts without having a leftover cap hit. The last time we had these amnesty buyouts was in 2014.
Regular buyouts remain, though, and the window for those opens on Friday, Sept. 25 and closes on Oct. 8 at 5:00 p.m. These buyouts can offer short-term cap space, but there is a bit of a penalty on the back end.
The cost of a buyout is paid out over twice the number of remaining years on the contract and the rate is one-third of the remaining salary (not cap hit) for players younger than 26, and two-thirds for players 26 and older. But any player who is still recovering from an injury cannot be bought out and a buyout can only happen after a player clears unconditional waivers.
Any player who signed a contract at age 35 or older would not provide their team with any cap relief should they be bought out. Whatever the cap charge would be for that player remains exactly the same in the event they are bought out.
CapFriendly is a great resource for an explainer on how to calculate a cap hit for a buyout, and you can experiment with what a buyout may look like for any player in the league using their calculator.
To give you an idea of who could be targeted for a buyout, Sportsnet's Luke Fox ran down the top 14 candidates to keep an eye on.
“We could be flexible inside the marketplace for either free agents or for trades.”
4 paths to reconstructing the Toronto Maple Leafs defence: https://t.co/pE6oN1kpPq #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/UDD65S0MaA
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) September 25, 2020
NHL DRAFT: OCT. 6-7
This will be a draft unlike any other, and not just because it's happening when a new season is usually starting up. This year's draft will be done virtually, so if you watched the NFL's draft a few months ago you'll have some idea of how it'll go. And, in fact, some of the players whose names will be called have already begun playing a new season themselves.
The QMJHL season gets underway on Oct. 2, though suspected No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere will not be reporting to the Rimouski Oceanic as he waits for the NHL to start back up. Some European leagues, including the KHL, have already started to play. Some players who will be picked in the first round have one last shot to slightly up their stock. Lucas Raymond (Frolunda, SHL), Yaroslav Askarov (St. Petersburg, KHL), and Dawson Mercer (Chicoutimi, QMJHL) will all have played 2020-21 season games by the time the NHL Draft starts.
Lafreniere remains the top prospect after back-to-back CHL Player of the Year honours, but it's not clear who will go second overall. Quinton Byfield and Tim Stutzle are in the running, and it's likely whoever isn't picked by the LA Kings will go to the Ottawa Senators at No. 3.
The Senators will be the first and second Canadian team to pick, as they also hold the fifth-overall selection. The Winnipeg Jets are the only other Canadian team with a top-10 pick, but this is regarded as a draft deep in talent. Senators GM Pierre Dorion said in January that the top 20 players were "outstanding." Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary all have picks in the teens and could walk away with a nice prospect...if they don't trade the pick first.
This is a forward-dominated draft at the top and we may only see one or two defencemen taken inside the top 10. But the order is not clear for anyone after the first pick. Which defenceman goes first is probably between Erie's Jamie Drysdale and Jake Sanderson of the USNTDP.
Round 1 of the draft will go on Tuesday, Oct. 6 beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET, and you can watch it on Sportsnet. Rounds 2-7 will go on Wednesday, Oct. 7 beginning at 11:30 a.m. ET.
Players of note:
Yaroslav Askarov: Goalies are not often taken in the first round anymore, and certainly not in the top half of it, but we could see that happen for the second year in a row. After Spencer Knight was chosen 13th overall in 2019 by Florida, Askarov could hear his name called in a similar range. The Russian has been outstanding at times and has a .974 save percentage in three KHL games this season, but was underwhelming on the big stage of the WJC last winter.
Seth Jarvis: Finished last season second in WHL scoring with 98 points in 58 games...63 of those points came in his last 26 games. Jarvis's stock was rising fast and he likely would have benefitted in draft rankings had there been a playoff season.
Kaiden Guhle: A fast riser in the rankings, Guhle was not ranked by Sportsnet's Sam Cosentino in October's top 31, but ended the season up at No. 13. His development in the WHL is exactly what you want to see -- in Year 1 he played relatively minor minutes on an older team and didn't put up notable numbers, but in Year 2 he took on a more prominent role and thrived. A strong-skating defenceman and standing 6-foot-2, 186 pounds, Guhle improved year-over-year from 17 points to 40.
DEADLINE FOR TEAMS TO SUBMIT QUALIFYING OFFERS FOR RFAs: OCT. 7
Usually this date isn't so notable. If a team extends a qualifying offer to an RFA, they retain negotiating rights with them and can mach any offer sheet presented by a rival team. A qualifying offer could then lead to arbitration, if that player is eligible. Any player who does not receive a qualifying offer by the deadline becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Teams more or less qualify all of their RFAs who have NHL potential and only sometimes is a player who raises an eyebrow left unqualified. There are a lot more financial considerations this year, however, so teams may consider releasing an RFA for cap reasons.
It's all related to the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million instead of rising, as was expected pre-COVID. Now many teams are in a tight spot.
"I think that teams are going to have to look at that a little bit more critically than they have in the past and maybe cut ties with 22-, 23-year-old players, rather than re-sign them at the number they're at and allow those players to become free agents," Sportsnet's Chris Johnston said recently on Hockey Central. "There's going to be a trickle-down effect of a flat cap. I mean, I know Alex Pietrangelo's negotiations aren't going well in St. Louis, but I'm reasonably confident he's going to be a well-paid player next season. He's going to get his deal...but there are going to be players who become free agents under these conditions and they're going to get squeezed. They're either going to have to take less term or less money than they would have in a normal time."
So keep an eye on Oct. 7, which also happens to be Day 2 of the draft. There may be some surprise players left unqualified and some potential value added to the UFA pool, which will open just two days later...
FREE AGENCY: OPENS OCT. 9
Coming in just over three months later than usual, free agency will open on the Friday of the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and there could be big moves, small moves, unusual moves and everything in between.
Here is where the league-wide cap crunch is going to be most measurable. We'd imagine the biggest names will still get their paydays, but how much will players lower in the pecking order be squeezed? Even those big names may be forced into an interesting decision if it's presented: sign a long-term deal that's maybe worth slightly less money than would've been offered under normal circumstances, or agree to something shorter that comes with a huge payout and try free agency again in short order? Would a team with Cup hopes and lots of cap space, like Colorado, attempt this with anyone?
Pietrangelo tops this year's group of UFAs as the Blues captain one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup is set to hit the open market at 30 years old. He's the headline name on the blue line, but far from the only notable defenceman available in free agency. Tyson Barrie, TJ Brodie, Torey Krug, Sami Vatanen, Chris Tanev and Travis Hamonic are all set to test the market and would be nice adds to a top four.
Taylor Hall, who the Arizona Coyotes traded a first-round pick plus for, is the top forward headed to free agency and the 2018 Hart Trophy winner is coming off a season in which he posted 16 goals and 52 points in 65 games. Hall has made the playoffs just twice in his 10-year career and hasn't gotten out of the first round yet, so what he prioritizes will be interesting to see.
“I think honestly it’s probably all winning,” Hall said about his free agency after the Coyotes were eliminated by Colorado. “Any player at this stage in their career who’s had the career I’ve had, 10 seasons only making the playoffs twice, that’s really what I’m after. We’ll see what happens there.
“I don’t think the money is going to be what it was before Covid or before this season, but that’s fine. I think we get paid a lot of money to play a game and we’ll see what happens.”
There are various scorers available. Mike Hoffman and the underrated Evgenii Dadonov are set to leave the Panthers after they finished 1-2 on the team with 29 and 25 goals this season, respectively. Tyler Toffoli and the Vancouver Canucks may still come to terms, but they also have to figure out Jacob Markstrom and Tanev without much wiggle room.
If its sandpaper you want up front, Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, and perhaps Corey Perry will be available.
And what about 40-year-old Joe Thornton, who appears to be at the end of the line in San Jose? Will he come back for another season to chase the Stanley Cup in perhaps more of a third-line role? And what does he have left after a 31-point season?
In terms of depth of options, though, this is the year of the goalie market.
Whatever type of goalie your team needs may be attainable through free agency. Need a starter? Look no further than Markstrom, Braden Holtby or, if Vegas doesn't re-sign him first, Robin Lehner. Need a tandem option? Anton Khudobin, Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot, Corey Crawford and maybe Ryan Miller will be available. How about a veteran backup, who could possibly offer more? Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard or Brian Elliott could be had.
And then there's the goalie trade market, which could include the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Frederik Andersen, Henrik Lundqvist (who could be bought out and become a UFA), Darcy Kuemper, or either of Pittsburgh's RFAs, Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. With Seattle expansion a year away, this figures to be an interesting off-season for goalies as teams position themselves for next off-season, when one netminder on each roster has to be made available for the Kraken.
As it stands right now, before all RFAs have been dealt with or many UFAs possibly re-signed, 14 NHL teams have less than $10 million in projected cap space. At the other end, six teams currently have more than $20 million in projected room, with the Senators having the most space at $39.5 million. Many of the teams with lots of cap space are rebuilding rosters and those GMs are in an interesting situation where it will be tempting to try and speed things up.
A lot of contenders are tight to the cap, though, and are in interesting situations for completely different reasons. How do you add and improve without much room to work with?
It's setting up to be an exciting off-season where plenty of possibilities are on the table. It's coming up fast, too, and will blow past us before you know it. Buckle up, because the next two weeks will be wild.