The NHL free-agent market is perilous at the best of times. And with the COVID pandemic wreaking havoc on teams’ budgets – and flattening out the salary cap for the foreseeable future – the 2020 off-season was anything but the best of times.
So you could have forgiven NHL GMs if they were hesitant to jump into the UFA market with the type of zeal usually seen come the start of the free-agent frenzy. But the COVID craziness also drove down some players’ asking prices, so it wasn’t all bad for the front offices.
The four GMs who inked the following five players to UFA pacts last fall were able expertly to navigate the minefield and avoid weighing their teams down with boat-anchor deals. These are five 2020 off-season signings that have aged like a fine wine.
Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair – Florida Panthers
The 2020-21 season didn't end on an exceptionally high note for the Florida Panthers, but it was also far from being a write-off. There may not have been a single NHL team that did a better job acquiring low-cost assets and turning them into gold in the past year.
Sam Bennett can’t show up on this list – since he was a trade acquisition, not a UFA – but he would fit the same buy-low mold that the Panthers’ 2020 off-season signings of Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair first established. True, the signings had very little downside risk involved, so neither was ever going to be an albatross, but first-year Panthers GM Bill Zito and his staff of pro scouts can still be proud of their work. That should always be the case when you’re able to sign two-thirds of your top line for a combined AAV of $2.7 million. Talk about huge upside potential.
Verhaeghe and Duclair finished third and sixth, respectively, in Panthers scoring. Both played in 43 of 56 contests. Verhaeghe picked up 18 goals and 36 points; Duclair potted 10 goals and had 32 points. Verhaeghe and Duclair spent just over 236 5-on-5 minutes paired with Aleksander Barkov as the Panthers’ top line. The trio was a possession juggernaut, sweeping up 69.05 percent of expected goals and generating 73.26 percent of high-danger attempts. Barkov, one of the NHL's best players, is the driver, sure. But while Verhaeghe and Duclair both see their possession numbers swoon a little apart from No. 16, neither becomes anything like a liability.
The only problem the Panthers have? It’s that they didn’t buy more (years). Verhaeghe, who signed a two-year deal worth $2 million on Oct. 9, 2020, will require a considerable re-investment next summer if he continues his upward trajectory. Duclair, meanwhile, signed to just a one-year term last off-season, so the Panthers have already had to give him $1.3-million raise from his 2020-21 salary. Duclair signed a three-year, $9-million extension on July 15.
Tyler Toffoli – Montreal Canadiens
After spending his first eight NHL seasons in the Pacific Division, Tyler Toffoli returned to his East Coast roots last October, when he signed a four-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens that would pay him an average of $4.25 million per season.
The Scarborough, Ont., native spent his junior days sniping for the Ottawa 67s, with whom he won consecutive OHL goal-scoring crowns between 2010-11 and ’11-12. He scored 57 and 52 goals, respectively, in those two seasons. Though it’s not uncommon for older OHL players (Toffoli was 18 and 19 in those two seasons) to dominate the scoring leaderboard, it was still an enticing development for the Los Angeles Kings, who had drafted Toffoli 47th overall in 2010.
The initial promise Toffoli showed in the wake of his draft year wasn’t a mirage, either. Toffoli joined the Kings on a full-time basis from the 2013-14 season onward. Only five 2010-draftees (and only one player taken later in the draft) have scored more than Toffoli’s 173 career goals. He also ranks 11th among his draft cohort with 344 points.
But with the Kings on the downturn and Toffoli set to become a 2020 UFA, L.A. shipped him to Vancouver at the 2019-20 trade deadline. Toffoli was productive in his Vancouver stint, scoring six goals and 10 points in 10 regular-season games and then two goals and four points in seven playoff games.
But the Canucks chose to let Toffoli hit free agency, and Montreal quickly scooped up the sharpshooting right winger, signing him to the aforementioned four-year deal.
It paid off. Toffoli scored at a career-high clip this past season; his 28 goals in 52 games put him on pace for 44 in an 82-game season. He led the team in goals and points during the regular season. During Montreal’s Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup final, Toffoli added five goals and 14 points in 22 games, good for second on the team in both goals (tied) and points.
Now, Toffoli shouldn’t be counted on to score at that elite pace for the life of the deal – his shooting percentage (17.7) this season was way above his career mark of 11.1. But he has always been a great possession player and clearly has chemistry with budding-star linemates Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. That should make for smooth sailing throughout the rest of the 29-year-old Toffoli’s three years in Montreal.
Alex Pietrangelo – Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights’ signing of Alex Pietrangelo was one of the biggest off-season acquisitions in recent memory. The $8.8-million AAV Pietrangelo signed for made him the highest-paid player of the 2020 off-season and was the fifth-highest AAV of any blueline signing in the cap era at the time (both Cale Makar and Seth Jones eclipsed that figure this summer). It’s not often a player of his caliber hits the market. Of the now-six blueliners to pull down more on an annual basis than Pietrangelo, not one of them hit UFA status.
The six-foot-three, 210-pound rearguard brings everything a team could want in a defender. He’s big, can play monster minutes in all situations, contributes offense and is defensively sound. Being a right-shot helps, too.
Pietrangelo was great for the Golden Knights this season. On a team that got to within two wins of the Stanley Cup final, he logged the most minutes in both the regular season (24:26) and playoffs (25:07). He finished second on the team in playoff scoring, with 12 points in 19 games. That’s not second among Knights defenders, mind you, that’s second overall on the team, behind only William Karlsson. Pietrangelo also had 23 points in 41 regular-season games and was among the NHL’s elite blueliners at generating chances.
So why does Pietrangelo not take top billing? It’s just too early in his seven-year term to place him higher. He stands a real chance at helping Vegas procure a Cup in the next couple of seasons, but he turns 32 next January and still has six years left at a hefty $8.8-million ticket. The backend may sting, but then again, flags fly forever.
Chris Tanev – Calgary Flames
Longtime Canucks defensive stalwart Chris Tanev landed in Calgary on Oct. 9, 2020, to relatively little fanfare. He signed for four years, with a cap hit of $4.5 million per season.
It was an under-the-radar signing, and with 130 points in 570 career NHL games, Tanev is never going to jump off the page with just a quick perusal of boxcars, but he was sublime in his own end for Calgary in 2020-21.
Among the 171 defensemen to play at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey in 2020-21, on a per-hour basis, Tanev ranked best in goals against (1.4), expected goals against (1.47) and high-danger Corsi allowed (6.32). He did that while consistently facing his opponents’ top players night in and night out. With players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Elias Pettersson and Mark Stone currently populating the Pacific division, and the likes of Trevor Zegras and Quinton Byfield on their way, Tanev will be a vital cog for Calgary moving forward.
HM: Both Tyson Barrie and Corey Perry did wonders for their respective teams on cheap, one-year terms in 2020-21.