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

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

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    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”