Two weeks into one of the most unique free-agency periods we’ve seen in the NHL, one of the top snipers on the market still finds himself without a team to play for in 2020-21.
Few situations around the league exemplify just how odd this off-season is like that of Mike Hoffman, the Florida Panther-turned-UFA who has yet to ink a new deal for the coming season. In any other year, it would be hard to imagine a winger like Hoffman — coming off a season in which he tallied at a 34-goal pace, with a 36-goal effort one year prior — remaining team-less for this long.
But such is 2020, where deals are being signed in October, negotiations are had over Zoom, and GMs league-wide are feeling the immense financial crunch of a flat salary cap.
For Hoffman, a deal is sure to come soon, as interest in the left winger appears to be as high as expected, according to his agent, Robert Hooper. In an interview with The Athletic’s Adam Vingan this week, Hooper said Hoffman has received interest from 13 clubs, with five or six of those characterized as “serious.”
The unique financial circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — which has kept the salary cap flat and left teams with less money to spend than expected — means many of those clubs courting Hoffman would need to move out money to even be able to sign him. That being the case, as Elliotte Friedman reported last week, Hoffman appears open to going the route of fellow star 2020 free agent Taylor Hall, who inked a one-year deal as opposed to one with the term we’ve come to expect of players in this situation.
So, where might a Hoffman deal land, in terms of dollars? Hall cashed in with a one-year, $8-million deal from the Sabres. Another of the top-end names in this year’s free-agency class, Evgenii Dadonov, signed for $5 million per year on a three-year deal in Ottawa. Hoffman figures to land somewhere in between those two — which direction his average annual value leans depending on the term he opts for.
Once again, though, it’s key to keep in mind that money remains tight around the league. Even for Hall, a former Hart Trophy winner, many of the offers received by the former No. 1 pick were around $3 million less than Buffalo’s, according to Friedman, which would leave them around Dadonov’s $5-million mark.
It’s fair to assume those same teams who were in on Hall and lost out would shift attention to Hoffman, the next best scorer on the market, but would they offer him the same $5-million deal, or even less? As was the case with Hall, it appears a number of interested clubs must find a way to create space for such a deal. As Hooper suggested, that list of teams in that category doesn’t seem to be short.
Would the Vancouver Canucks move out one of their veterans, if possible, to bring in Hoffman after losing Tyler Toffoli to the Montreal Canadiens? Could the Calgary Flames, still with a few million in space, create more space to add Hoffman as a much-needed jolt for their offensive corps? Could a contender like Colorado or Vegas manage to shuffle the deck enough to stock up even more with the proven sniper?
Weeks into free agency, the options are still plenty. That said, here’s a look at five intriguing destinations for Hoffman based on the the ability to offer him a top-end salary right now, reported interest in his services, or a fit that may be too good to pass up.
The Predators check a number of boxes in terms of the financials and a potential fit. First off, they have the most cap space of any bona fide playoff team, with $12.9 million, per CapFriendly, and a talented core still in place.
Friedman confirmed in his 31 Thoughts column that the Predators have shown interest in Hoffman, and it’s clear why — while the club has a top-end left winger on their first line in Filip Forsberg, Hoffman could slot in as a key depth scorer for a club that finished in the middle of the pack offensively last season.
Moreover, he could serve as a quality running mate for centreman Matt Duchene, who seems yet to fully hit his stride in Nashville. The two have established chemistry already, having played together during their tenure in Ottawa. In 2017-18, Duchene’s first season with the Senators and Hoffman’s last, the pair got on the scoresheet together 23 times over the course of the year, accounting for roughly have of Duchene’s points that season.
Aside from five-on-five play, the addition would also help address one of the club’s biggest weaknesses. Nashville had one of the worst power plays in the league last season, their 17.3-per cent success rate ranking 25th league-wide. Enter, Hoffman. The winger has amassed the fourth-most power-play goals in the league over the past four seasons (49), bested only by marquee scorers Alex Ovechkin, David Pastrnak and Patrik Laine.
In terms of the finances, the Predators have only RFA Luke Kunin to sign with their near-$13 million in cap space, meaning they’ll have plenty to try to bring Hoffman to Tennessee.
The Blue Jackets are right up there with Nashville in terms of cap space, clocking in slightly lower but also at around $12.9 million. That said, unlike the Predators, they do have a key name still to lock up, with top-line pivot Pierre-Luc Dubois in need of a new deal. Seven other roster players hit free agency next summer, too, which could complicate a potential multi-year deal.
Either way, the Jackets should have enough space to add Hoffman on a one-year deal at the very least, and the need for his services is clear.
Columbus has had a notable hole at left wing since the departure of star winger Artemi Panarin. Per Friedman, the Blue Jackets were in on Hall, having moved money and now looking to utilize their space. As with Nashville, with Hall off the table, Hoffman becomes the next best option, and could be had at potentially a lower price.
In terms of role, Columbus may be a desirable fit for Hoffman, as he’d slot in as seemingly the top option on the left side, likely to line up alongside Dubois at five-on-five and on the power play. And once again, his services are sorely needed when it comes to the man-advantage, as the Blue Jackets’ woeful power play ranked ranked even worse than Nashville’s at 27th in the league in 2019-20.
No matter how you slice it, the Jackets need some type of offensive boost after seeing their scoring cupboard emptied in recent years with the departures of Panarin, Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and now Josh Anderson. The team ranked 28th in goals per game in 2019-20, yet still made it out of the qualifying round, topping the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games. In terms of a playoff team who could offer a decent average annual salary, Columbus likely ranks as Hoffman’s second-best option.
If Hoffman opts to go the route Hall did, his fellow winger’s old club may be the best bet.
After looking likely to sign with a bona fide contender this off-season, Hall chose to go with the Sabres — not a team that seems on the cusp of a championship, but one that could offer him a higher salary and a chance to reunite with a coach he enjoyed playing for.
The financials shouldn’t be a problem for New Jersey, as the club has the second-most cap space in the league right now at $18.3 million. They have a couple key names to bring back in Mackenzie Blackwood and Jesper Bratt, but given where those deals are likely to clock in, there should still be plenty for a Hall-esque offer should New Jersey want to bring in Hoffman.
His potential fit would be Hall-esque, too, as the club’s been in need of a replacement for Hall since he and the team parted ways. A spot alongside Nico Hischier could be a good fit for the sniper, as well as a place on the top power-play unit, which once again could use an offensive boost.
Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald has said the club is unlikely to make a big splash in free agency with the team understanding they’re not close to contending — a wise approach when considering a potential multi-year addition. But if an affordable one-year deal for a quality scorer to pair with one of his young stars is on the table, would the Devils consider it?
After watching Jack Hughes endure as tumultuous a rookie campaign as one could imagine — seeing his GM and head coach fired, his club’s star player traded, and with the season as a whole suspended due to the pandemic — it’s a fair bet that the organization is hoping to steady the ship for their young phenom’s sophomore effort. The addition of a proven performer to help add some more wins to the mix in 2020-21 could aid in that effort.
By far the best team that could be interested in Hoffman’s services, the Bruins are not quite set up to simply put a deal on the table — some form of roster surgery would be required.
The club currently sits with $6.7 million in cap space, that room partly the result of Torey Krug opting to sign with St. Louis as a free agent. That leaves Boston enough to make a competitive offer for Hoffman, but the team does have RFA Jake DeBrusk to re-sign, and there’s the question of whether or not Zdeno Chara wants to return for another run in the big leagues.
Should they have their hearts set on Hoffman, the B’s likely have to move something out to make a deal work.
The fit, though, is clear. Per Friedman, the Bruins were in on Hall and are still on the hunt for a scorer to add to their group. The left side of the top line is locked down by Marchand on what’s sure to once again be among the best trios in the game — Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. But Hoffman would be a quality addition to a second line, alongside David Krejci and perhaps Ondrej Kase, or recent addition Craig Smith.
With three of Boston’s four best players over the age of 30, there’s no mystery here in terms of intent. The Bruins remain one of the most promising teams in the league, but their championship window shrinks with each passing year. As of right now, the loss of Krug has set them back, particularly on the power play, where the blue-liner was truly elite — ranking tied for sixth-best among all NHLers in 2019-20 with 28 power-play points, along with Marchand.
Provided they could do so without losing something significant off the roster, bringing in Hoffman could help provide an offensive boost at five-on-five — giving them some more depth to contend with division rival and Cup champion Tampa Bay — and mitigate the potential loss of Krug’s offence on the man-advantage.
Another club identified by Friedman as being in the market for a scorer, the Hurricanes similarly would have to shuffle deck to be able to realistically fit Hoffman into the picture.
The Canes currently have roughly $4.4 million in cap space, with a couple RFAs to re-sign as well. They’d similarly fall into the camp of teams who’d have to make a move to put a deal on the table, but it appears they’re interested in doing so.
In terms of fit, the situation in Carolina is somewhat similar to Boston — the Canes have a quality top-line scorer on the left side in rising star Andrei Svechnikov. Hoffman could be a potential fit on the second trio, though, alongside captain Jordan Staal or former Panthers teammate Vincent Trocheck.
The Hurricanes have been on the cusp of moving up into Eastern contender status, spurred by the ascent of Svechnikov and star centre Sebastian Aho, but their return to the post-season has met an inglorious end at the hands of the deeper Bruins for two years straight.
Bringing in Hoffman could potentially push the Canes into that upper echelon in the East, giving them another proven scorer and another weapon for an already-potent power play. That said, with key names in need of new deals after 2020-21 — namely Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton — a one-year deal might be the most likely option should they target Hoffman.