Year in Review: Biggest NHL trades, free agent moves of 2020

Year in Review: Biggest NHL trades, free agent moves of 2020
Getty Images

Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, NHL players, trades, and more as we remember 2020.

Thanks in part to a global pandemic, 2020 was a disruptive year to the NHL, and the sport of hockey in general. With a flat salary cap, teams needed to be creative — and sometimes, free agents needed imagination to find destinations.

From the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline through an elongated and uncertain Free Agent Frenzy, here are the biggest transactions of the year.

Golden Knights, Blues make an array of moves around Pietrangelo

When it comes to Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall — the catalysts of 2020’s biggest moves — it’s not just about the teams they ended up with, or the checks they’ll cash. It’s also about the dominoes that fell along the way.

That said, if there’s a single thing that makes Pietrangelo a slightly bigger chip, it’s the enormity of the costs around him.

To start, the Vegas Golden Knights disrupted their roster to bring in Pietrangelo, and it’s possible we’ll see more aftershocks. (Though it at least seems like Max Pacioretty and Marc-Andre Fleury are staying put. Maybe they’ll headline next year’s list?)

While the Buffalo Sabres deftly limited their risks by signing Hall for a single season, the Golden Knights rolled the dice in true Vegas fashion with Pietrangelo’s deal. During an offseason with few old-school, high-stakes free agent gambles, Pietrangelo received a seven-year, $61.6M whopper from the Golden Knights.

All that for a 30-year-old defenseman? It’s a lot, and time will tell if it actually made the Golden Knights better. Either way, these are the sort of splashy moves we don’t see enough in the risk-averse NHL.

From the Blues’ perspective, replacing Pietrangelo ended up being a costly process that began before 2020. Handing Torey Krug term and a $6.5M cap hit seems reasonable, but moving on from Pietrangelo stings that much more because the Blues showed the perils of trying to be proactive in that trade-and-extension for Justin Faulk.

With Schmidt in Vancouver, Pietrangelo with Vegas, and Krug on the Blues, you could make a Pepe Silvia-sque chart of the spiraling effects of that free agent situation.

Taylor Hall’s travels end with him in Buffalo — for now

Deep down, Taylor Hall probably entered 2020 hoping to settle down with a long-term contract. It’s become increasingly clear that the majority of Hall’s luck has been concentrated in bolstering his teams’ draft lottery bounces.

Not long before 2019 turned to 2020, the Devils traded Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. Combined with the Coyotes’ strange scouting mishap, the picks Arizona gave up for Hall ended up making that a pretty painful error for the Desert Dogs.

After suffering through dismal years with the Oilers and Devils, and that moribund Coyotes playoff run, you’d think Hall would sign with a contender. Especially since it ended up being a one-year deal. Nope, instead, Hall took a chance on the Sabres, a franchise seemingly on the edge of fan mutiny.

Considering the lack of term, there’s a strong chance Hall’s future will factor into 2021’s biggest transactions. We’ll just have to see if it’s in a trade, extension, or even both.

Lightning wiggle out of another salary cap snag

Year after year, we wonder if this will finally be the time that salary cap-crunched contenders get hit with offer sheets. For years, it seemed like the Tampa Bay Lightning would at least deal with some poaching. Instead, they keep wiggling out of salary cap snags with relative ease.

Now, Nikita Kucherov‘s LTIR trip isn’t exactly as delightful as shimmying under a limbo pole. That said, it’s still resounding that the Lightning managed to sign Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, and Erik Cernak while barely giving up anyone of note.

Sure, the Bolts still have more work to do, but the dreams of offer sheet-related chaos seem that much more distant for fans of wild NHL transactions.

(Tries not to be sad about the inevitable lack of Mathew Barzal drama.)

Lehner, Markstrom headline the goalie carousel

Let’s be honest: NHL fans (*cough* and maybe media *cough*) might need flashcards to keep track of all the goalies changing teams.

From a drama perspective, the Golden Knights trading for and eventually re-signing Robin Lehner takes a stab at the top goalie story, being that MAF and his agent are still around. (Again … for now?)

Jacob Markstrom going from one West rival (Vancouver) to another (Calgary) could end up just as big if the large netminder proves that his past couple of sneaky-stellar seasons weren’t flukes.

There were plenty of other significant goalie moves beyond those headliners. Braden Holtby going to Vancouver probably should feel like a bigger deal. The Senators certainly invested in Matt Murray believing that he’ll be one of the standout change-of-scenery goalies.

Knowing how unpredictable goalies are, smaller transactions could end up being the bigger game-changers. Considering the Wild’s under-the-radar-elite defense, maybe Cam Talbot could be the gem of this group? Will a lack of change doom the Oilers in net? Did the Islanders make the right move in moving on from Thomas Greiss? Will Devan Dubnyk defy expectations with the Sharks?

Lots of goalie storylines after all the 2020 trades and free agent signings …

Tough times for Lundqvist

… Which brings us to one of the sadder situations. After a buyout by the Rangers, the end of 2020 was already looking tough for Henrik Lundqvist. Signing with the Capitals set the stage for a potentially pleasant comeback story. Then a truly frightening health condition surfaced, prompting open heart surgery for Lundqvist.

It would be great to see a resurgent Lundqvist on the 2021 editions of lists like these. Yet, for most of us, we’d settle for a healthy Hank.

Extensive extensions

Sometimes, the biggest moves are the ones that keep someone in place.

Early in 2020, the Capitals extended Nicklas Backstrom. By keeping skaters like Backstrom, you could argue that the stage was set for Braden Holtby to get squeezed out.

Through the window of extensions and sign-and-trades, you could summarize much of the biggest Canadiens moves — 2020 included. After all, Marc Bergevin didn’t just trade Max Domi for Josh Anderson; he also handed Anderson a bold extension. Both Jake Allen and Joel Edmundson received significant term before playing a single game with Montreal. Oh yeah, and also after some drama, the Canadiens extended heart-and-soul winger Brendan Gallagher. If Bergevin made strong moves, he also locked them in for serious term. If not? Then he overextended himself, and if the floor really falls out, possibly Montreal’s next GM.

Teams enhanced trade investments by signing players to hefty extensions. The Islanders gambled a lot on Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and it’s fair to wonder if the pugnacious forward’s extension made it untenable to keep Devon Toews. It’s understandable if people forgot about the Maple Leafs extending Jake Muzzin amid all of their moves and drama. Keeping Muzzin may end up being more important than swapping Tyson Barrie out for T.J. Brodie, among other Toronto tweaks.

Between free agent signings, trades, extensions, and other bold moves, 2020 was a busy year for NHL transactions. Hockey fans will be fortunate if 2021 ends up anywhere close.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Scroll Down For: