Crease carousel: Goalie musical chairs highlight 1st day of NHL free agency

A crease carousel highlighted the opening of NHL free agency.

And whenever next season begins, some fans will need a program — or a scan of their smartphones — to keep track of all the changes.

With the economic realities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic casting a long shadow Friday, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks made seismic moves on the goalie front as the market opened, the Ottawa Senators locked up their new starter, and a future Hall of Famer found a new home.

The Flames made the biggest splash, signing Jacob Markstrom to a six-year, $36-million US contract after the netminder wasn’t able to agree on a new pact with Vancouver before hitting unrestricted free agency.

“I’m super-happy to get a deal done not too late in the night Swedish-time,” the 30-year-old Markstrom said from his hometown of Gavle. “Calgary has something really big going. Can’t wait to be a part of it.

“Obviously they really wanted me there.”

The Canucks had already moved on from their former No. 1 goalie a few hours earlier, inking Braden Holtby to a two-year, $8.6-million contract as part of the league-wide game of musical chairs that kicked off soon after teams and players were allowed to negotiate at noon ET.

“Luckily, it worked out, the best of all scenarios,” said the 31-year-old, who helped the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in 2018 and will split playing time with the up-and-coming Thatcher Demko in Vancouver. “It’s not an experience that I think is that fun for anyone, not knowing and all that.

“I’m excited to have it over with, to go to a great team, a great city and move forward.”

The Ottawa Senators then announced they had signed restricted free agent Matt Murray to a four-year, $25-million contract after acquiring the 26-year-old from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a trade Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Capitals replaced Holtby with Henrik Lundqvist, inking him to $1.5 million, one-year deal after the veteran was bought out by the New York Rangers following 15 seasons in the Big Apple. The 38-year-old longtime face of the Rangers will split net duties with youngster Ilya Samsonov.

“I’ve been doing my homework on all different scenarios and options for me,” Lundqvist said. “The Capitals, they check every box when it comes to a team that understands winning, great coaching staff [and] an opportunity to play.”

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Cam Talbot is also switching teams, waving goodbye to Calgary and signing a three-year, $11-million pact with the Minnesota Wild, who traded former starter Devan Dubnyk to the San Jose Sharks this week. Meanwhile, Dallas Stars playoff hero Anton Khudobin is staying in Texas after agreeing on a three-year, $10-million deal.

Veteran goalies still available include two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford, the dependable Thomas Greiss and former Ottawa starter Craig Anderson.

Holtby said seeing the amount of crease quality heading into free agency was a little unsettling.

“As it got down, you really realize there’s a lot of really good goalies out there and we kind of all came up at the same time,” he said. “I’m really thankful that’s in the past.”

The biggest names on the market, however, remain available in the form of defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, and winger Taylor Hall.

The financial fallout from COVID-19, which shuttered the NHL before the league eventually completed its 2019-20 campaign with a 24-team restart this summer and fall inside tightly controlled bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto without fans, means that teams are dealing with a flat salary cap of $81.5 million for the foreseeable future.

In short, there’s less money in the system and less room to manoeuvre. The NHL has pushed back the potential start date for the 2020-21 season from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, but when spectators will be allowed back into arenas remains an unknown for a league that relies on ticket sales for roughly 50 per cent of its revenue.

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While there were a number of signings on Day 1, there’s also been a wait-and-see approach for teams.

“This free-agency period, it’s not going to be like in years past… a five- or six-hour deal and it’s all over,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “This could be three or four days or even a week (where) we could be doing business.”

The majority of Friday’s signings were short-term, something Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland said is directly related to the flat cap.

“Who knows how long it’s going to be $81.5 million?” he asked.

Other moves across league

The Maple Leafs signed defenceman T.J. Brodie to a four-year, $20-million contract that, barring something unforeseen, would appear to put them out of the running for Pietrangelo.

Toronto also took care of some business earlier by adding gritty winger and local product Wayne Simmonds on a one-year, $1.5-million deal.

“I talked to a few teams and the decision was made to come home because of what the city means to us,” said the 32-year-old. “There were other options where I probably could have squeezed out a little bit more [money], but it made the most sense for my family.”

Blue-liner Torey Krug signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the St. Louis Blues late Friday.

The Oilers inked centre Kyle Turris, who was recently bought out by the Nashville Predators, on a two-year contract worth a reported $3.3 million, and kept winger Tyler Ennis on a one-year, $1-million deal.

Bobby Ryan found a new home in Detroit, signing a one-year pact with the Red Wings after the 2020 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner was bought out by Ottawa, while former Senators defenceman Mark Borowiecki agreed to a two-year, $4-million deal in Nashville.

The Anaheim Ducks, meanwhile, lured blue-liner Kevin Shattenkirk away from the Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning on a three-year, $11.7-million term, and Washington secured the services of defenceman Justin Schultz for the next two seasons at $4 million annually.

The Winnipeg Jets made the day’s first big move — albeit on the trade front — by re-acquiring veteran centre Paul Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights for defenceman Carl Dahlstrom and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2022. The Jets also re-signed Nathan Beaulieu to a two-year, $2.5-million extension, and kept fellow defenceman Luca Sbisa in the Manitoba capital on a one-year, $800,000 agreement.

And the Montreal Canadiens re-signed blue-liner and pending RFA Victor Mete to a one-year deal worth $735,000.

“It’s been a big challenge this year with the pandemic and the flat cap,” Benning said of the NHL marketplace. “It’s been almost impossible to shed money.

“The business part of the hockey is going to be different here, I think, for the next couple of years.”

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