NHL free agency winners, losers: Sabres stun with Taylor Hall; Blackhawks part ways with veterans

The Vegas Golden Knights have had a busy offseason as they have tried to maintain their standing as an elite team while also moving around puzzle pieces to fit within a flat salary cap. They re-signed goalie Robin Lehner (five years, $25 million) and traded center Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets. But their biggest move was adding the best available player in unrestricted free agency, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (seven years, $61.6 million).

They traded defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks and will need to make another move to get under the cap. Marc-Andre Fleury, who was on the trade block due to his $7 million cap hit for two more seasons, won't be that person as general manager Kelly McCrimmon says the goalie is staying. It seems as if the number of goalies on the free-agent marketplace and Fleury's cost limited the Golden Knights' ability.

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The winners and losers of the NHL's free agency period (which still has forwards Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov available):

WINNERS

Buffalo Sabres: Rumors circulated so loudly earlier this offseason about Jack Eichel being traded that general manager Kevyn Adams addressed it, saying he had "no intention of shopping" him. Not only did the Sabres keep Eichel, they did him one better by signing Taylor Hall, the best forward on the market, to a one-year, $8 million contract to play on Eichel's line. Hall, who has said his goal is to win, now will be highly motivated to play well and cash in next offseason, when, hopefully, the salary cap increases and teams have more money to spend. The Sabres have also bolstered their roster  by trading for center Eric Staal and signing forwards Cody Eakin and Curtis Lazar and defenseman Brandon Montour.

Taylor Hall got a one-year, $8 million contract from the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo: Perry Nelson, USA TODAY Sports)

Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames: Plenty of goaltenders were available in free agency, and Braden Holtby (Canucks) and Corey Crawford (Devils) ended up taking pay cuts. Not Markstrom, 29. He turned an All-Star season and strong playoffs into a six-year, $36 million contract that will pay him $8 million in the third and fourth years of the deal.

Toronto Maple Leafs: GM Kyle Dubas entered this offseason with the goal of improving the team's toughness and making them harder to play against. Even though that was probably accomplished via the signings of forward Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Zach Bogosian, it's the addition of T.J. Brodie (four years, $20 million) that could have the biggest payoff. Brodie, a left-handed shooter who prefers the right side, is a very good defender. 

Dallas Stars: They held on to goalie Anton Khudobin after his strong playoff performance and for a reasonable $3.33 million cap hit. His presence is important because Ben Bishop has had injury issues. They also re-signed forward Radek Faska for five years and defenseman Andrei Sekera for two and appear to have enough money left to sign restricted free agent forwards Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz. Mark Pysyk is a reasonable pickup if defenseman Stephen Johns is out long-term.

Detroit Red Wings: GM Steve Yzerman is sticking to the rebuild. He signed forward Bobby Ryan and defenseman Jon Merrill to one-year deals, and traded for defenseman Marc Staal, who has a year left on his deal. They can be dealt later for younger assets. Goalie Thomas Greiss is an upgrade in net, and defenseman Troy Stecher signed for two years.

LOSERS

Fans: October 9, the day unrestricted free agency opened, was dull. Only a fraction of USA TODAY's top 25 free agents were signed and none of the top three. Some still remain unsigned. The coronavirus pandemic not only curtailed teams' spending as the salary cap stayed flat, it also prevented players from interacting with prospective franchises like they normally would. There's no doubt the pace of signings is slower than usual.

Arizona Coyotes: They gave up a first-round pick last season to land Taylor Hall and he signed elsewhere. And they will be without a first-round pick next year as an NHL punishment for violating combine scouting procedures. That sanction included the loss of this year’s second-round pick. The Coyotes didn’t draft until the fourth round.

Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks looked to be on the rise after a qualifying-round upset of the Oilers. But that changed after Corey Crawford left in free agency and top-six forward Brandon Saad was traded to the Avalanche. Goalies Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia have a combined 84 NHL appearances. “A lot of this comes as a shock because it’s a completely different direction than we expected,” captain Jonathan Toews told the Athletic.

Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning: Johnson, who has a no-trade clause but lacks a no-movement clause, was placed on waivers because of the team's salary cap crunch. No one claimed him because he has four years left on his deal at a $5 million cap hit. He and the team could try to work out a trade, but the uncertainty must be tough on Johnson so soon after his first Stanley Cup victory. 

New York Rangers: It’s hard to argue against the youth and early returns on the rebuild, but the free agency period has brought some questions. Even if they are handicapped by the salary cap, the cost of veteran depth pieces to date have not been exorbitant. So it’s a bit perplexing to see them sign defenseman Jack Johnson, who has been subpar for years, for a season at $1.15 million and let winger Jesper Fast go. (three years, $6 million to the Hurricanes). New York wanted to gain experience and leadership after trading defenseman Marc Staal and buying out goalie Henrik Lundqvist's contract, but it still has questions at center and on how the pieces will fit on defense because its best ones are righties.

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