The NHL’s free-agent class of 2020 had a pretty rough go of it. Er, at least as ‘rough’ as can be for a group of guys making millions of dollars a year to realize their childhood fantasies.
But still, with COVID-19 debilitating NHL franchises’ budgets and necessitating the salary cap remain flat at $81.5 million – where it previously was expected to potentially balloon to over $88 million – the landscape was ominous for the 2020 cohort.
For an elite talent like Alex Pietrangelo and established top-tier guys like Torey Krug and Jacob Markstrom, the market was largely unaffected. But for more mercurial talents, it was a reckoning. No longer were teams able to throw around beaucoup-bucks for guys with one elite element and a handful of bugaboos.
For those affected, one strategy became most popular: kick the can down the road a year. Those who followed the blueprint hoped 2020-21 would be closer to normal, and the cap landscape would be better for the 2021 off-season.
As it turns out, that was overly optimistic. The cap is expected to remain flat at $81.5 million for next season and potentially the foreseeable future. But still, for players in such a position, a season of steady play can be a massive boon.
So, let’s check in on some of the players who took one-year ‘show-me’ deals this past off-season to see where they stand ahead of 2021 free agency.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to run down everyone who fits this criterion. Taylor Hall, Mikael Granlund, Sami Vatanen and Erik Haula could easily have merited a mention but won’t appear here.
Mike Hoffman – St. Louis Blues
Even before COVID-19, Mike Hoffman’s was an interesting case ahead of free agency. Hoffman is a one-dimensional player whose effort level can be sporadic and someone who's been derided as a poor personality fit in certain dressing rooms.
But when the one dimension at which a player excels is goal scoring, teams will make allowances. And boy, does Hoffman excel at lighting the lamp. From 2014-15 – his first full season in The Show – through the end of 2019-20, Hoffman scored 169 goals in 464 games, tied with Patrice Bergeron for 16th in the NHL.
Hoffman spent the bulk of his career in Ottawa before moving to Florida (via San Jose) during a tumultuous 2018 off-season. His two seasons with the Panthers were his most productive in the NHL. During his 151-game tenure in South Florida, Hoffman scored at an 82-game pace of 35 goals and 70 points.
So one could’ve reasonably expected a player already pulling down over $5 million per season on a four-year term to do better than the one-year, $4-million pact Hoffman signed with St. Louis two days before the 2020-21 season. Alas, COVID-19.
Hoffman’s season was a mixed bag. He scored at an 82-game pace of 27 goals despite averaging his fewest minutes since 2014-15 but was inordinately dependant on power-play production; nearly half his points came up a man. At even strength, Hoffman scored 0.9 goals per/60, ranking fifth among his seven full NHL seasons.
Assessment: Hoffman didn’t do himself many favors this year, but he's not in a terrible position. He could be a fit to take a ‘Tyson Barrie’ contract in Edmonton to play alongside Connor McDavid and further recoup his value.
Anthony Duclair – Florida Panthers
Anthony Duclair could be the poster child for this phenomenon. He reportedly turned down a three-year, $4.25-million extension offer from the Senators (though Duclair denies such an offer existed) to test the free-agent waters.
Whether he had such an offer from Ottawa or not, testing free agency would’ve been justifiable – and probably would’ve paid off handsomely – in any other off-season.
Duclair, at the time, had bounced between five teams in his six-season career and was coming off his best season as an NHLer in 2019-20. He had 23 goals and 40 points in 66 games with the offensively-bereft Senators that year, finishing tied for third in team scoring. Duclair’s output was inconsistent, but that was justifiable on a team lacking a true offensive weapon. And a sultry 29-game stretch between late October and late December of 2019 – one that saw him score 20 goals and 29 points in its course – would’ve had teams thinking Duclair was on the precipice of realizing his full potential.
But just as with everyone else on this list, when budget shortfalls came because of COVID-19, suddenly a talented but flawed player like Duclair couldn’t command the payday the UFA market would usually dictate.
Duclair eventually signed a one-year, $1.7-million pact with Florida on Dec. 17, 2020. Taking the short-term deal looks like it’s going to pay off for the 25-year-old left winger. In 43 games in 2020-21, Duclair had 10 goals and 32 points. Among players not on ELCs, Duclair’s $53,124 cost-per-point was the 25th best bargain in the league, despite the fact he missed almost a quarter of the season with injury.
Assessment: Duclair – a 2020 RFA who went unqualified – felt the brunt of the pandemic-induced crunch as much as anyone else last off-season. But betting on himself worked. He’s an RFA in 2021 and has found a home in Florida, playing alongside Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. He deserves a handsome raise.
Andreas Athanasiou – Los Angeles Kings
Andreas Athanasiou’s isn’t the first name you think of when listing players affected by COVID-19 budgets but he’s a candidate for this list, nonetheless, as yet another capricious player who probably deserved a better fate this past off-season. He wouldn’t have been in for quite the payday as some of his contemporaries, but Athanasiou still found himself without a home as a result of COVID-19 budget crunching.
Edmonton GM Ken Holland, who drafted Athanasiou during his tenure in Detroit, traded for the then 25-year-old left winger ahead of the 2020 deadline. Athanasiou, a one-time 30-goal scorer as a Wing, was immediately placed on a line with Connor McDavid, with Edmonton looking for a permanent complement to its superstar center. The early returns looked promising, as Athanasiou scored a goal and an assist in his first game in Oiler silks, but those would be his only points in Edmonton; Athanasiou was held pointless in his subsequent 12 games, between the regular season and playoffs.
With Athanasiou owed a $3-million qualifying offer and the Oilers in the throes of flat-cap budget shortfalls, Edmonton walked away from its new asset during the 2020 off-season.
On Dec. 28, 2020, Athanasiou signed a one-year, $1.2-million deal with L.A. His 23 points in 47 games ranked fifth among Kings forwards. For a team with a popgun attack ranked 27th in the NHL, Athanasiou provided some offensive spark despite scoring just one point with the man advantage. At even strength, his points/60 were in line with his most productive seasons in the NHL. His 22 even-strength points tied him for second on the Kings, just five points behind Anze Kopitar despite playing nine fewer games.
Assessment: Athanasiou is a 2021 RFA who’s seemingly found a home in L.A. He’s unlikely to reclaim his 30-goal form, but he’s recouped some value and should be a piece of the puzzle for the Kings.
Tyson Barrie – Edmonton Oilers
One could make the argument Tyson Barrie’s 2020-21 contract situation was more the product of his poor season with Toronto and subsequent desire to recoup value, even absent the 2020 offseason's budget constraints. After all, Barrie reportedly left significant money on the table – up to $2.25 million according to then-TSN analyst Frank Seravalli – to sign with Edmonton in October.
He agreed to a one-year, $3.75-million deal with the Oilers to give himself a ‘show-me’ season playing with the NHL's best player. Whether he’d have done so absent COVID-19 or not, he still warrants mention.
Barrie had an ultra-productive season with Edmonton, scoring eight goals and 48 points in 56 games, leading all NHL D-men in scoring.
Assessment: His flaws are well-documented – and for an in-depth look at Barrie, you can read Jared Clinton’s feature on the soon-to-be 30-year-old rearguard in our Free Agency Preview – but he’s unquestionably built his value back up significantly. Perhaps more than any other member of the 2020 free-agent cohort, Barrie negotiated the treacherous landscape to position himself well for 2021.