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How the coronavirus dampened the NHL’s free-agent frenzy

The Lightning started small by re-signing Pat Maroon and Luke Schenn, but couldn’t pay to keep Kevin Shattenkirk
The Lightning retain Pat Maroon at less than $1 million a season, according to TSN.
The Lightning retain Pat Maroon at less than $1 million a season, according to TSN. [ MARKO DITKUN | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 9, 2020|Updated Oct. 10, 2020

NHL free agency usually starts with a flash of big numbers. Last year, Artemi Panarin, the best available player, signed a seven-year deal worth $81.5 million with the Rangers an hour after the market opened.

Nothing like that happened Friday, the first day of this year’s free-agent period.

Related: Kevin Shattenkirk is trending and non-hockey Twitter thinks it's a "Star Trek" reference

Not only that, but the Lightning started with the unconventional move of putting forward Tyler Johnson on waivers as it maneuvers with not a lot of room under a flat $81.5 million salary cap.

Signings around the league quickly piled up after the noon start time, but they started small. The Lightning re-signed defenseman Luke Schenn (one year, $800,000) and wing Pat Maroon (two years, $1.8 million) at less than $1 million a season each, and that was indicative of what was happening around the league with the flat cap.

Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk left the Lightning for a three-year, $11.7 million deal with the Ducks, and after five hours of free agency, that was the largest contract signed by anyone other than a goalie.

Eventually, former Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, another of the top free agents, signed the first maximum seven-year deal of the period, with the Blues for $45.5 million.

Top free agents defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and wing Taylor Hall were still available late Friday.

There were a couple of reasons for the slow start, including the lack of a free-agent talking period and the coronavirus pandemic.

Typically there is a five-day period in which teams can contact potential free agents, including bringing them to the facility to sell their organization. This year, players officially couldn’t talk to other teams until Friday. They had to get information other ways.

The pandemic caused hockey-related revenue to plummet as the NHL canceled its last 189 regular-season games and held the playoffs in Canadian bubbles without fans. The result is the flat cap and a lot of uncertainty going forward.

Part of that unknown is what arbitration will look like for players such as now former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe. Teams don’t know if the officials deciding those contracts will take the flat cap into account or if they will consider only past comparables.

Verhaeghe would have been a restricted free agent with the Lightning, but the Lightning chose to let him walk. As an unrestricted free agent, he signed a two-year, $2 million deal with the Panthers on Friday, reports said.

This is the first year there is no increase in the cap, which has grown from $39 million when the cap came out of the 2004-05 lockout.

The Lightning had $2.9 million available late Friday and still want to re-sign restricted free agents center Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev.

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Related: The Lightning started with a couple of re-signings before free agency opened

Being tight against the cap is how they ended up losing Shattenkirk despite reportedly offering him a three-yer contract and putting Johnson on waivers — and not even unconditional waivers to lead to a buyout. They couldn’t afford anything north of $3 million a year on Shattenkirk.

Reports were the Lightning was trying to trade Johnson, who has four more years left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $5 million. Johnson gave the Lightning a list of teams he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause for. Tampa Bay must not have been able to make a deal.

There are a couple of options that could come from waiving Johnson.

This could be a backdoor way to send him to a team not on his list, and the Lightning could follow with an unconnected prospect or draft-pick trade with the same team.

It also could be the first step in an attempt to terminate his contract. That, however, can be done only for a breach of contract or as a mutual decision. If general manager Julien BriseBois is feeling devious, this could be a setup to assign Johnson to the AHL, have him not report, then terminate the contract. That would be out of character, though.

Lightning roster update

Here are this week’s moves affecting the Lightning, including those from Friday’s first day of free agency:

Re-signed

Pat Maroon (F): Two years, $1.8 million

Luke Schenn (D): One year, $800,000

Mitchell Stephens (F): Two years, $1.47 million

Gemel Smith (F): One year, two-way, $700,000

Lost

Kevin Shattenkirk (D): Anaheim, three years, $11.7 million

Carter Verhaeghe (F): Florida, two years, $2 million

AHL signings

Andreas Borgman (D): One year, two-way deal

Chris Gibson (G): One year, two-way, $700,000

Spencer Martin (G): One year, two-way, $700,000

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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