Five free agents who could get hurt by the flattened salary cap

Being an unrestricted free agent is supposed to mean fat paychecks for the players at the top of the market. But with the salary cap held back by the pandemic, there won't be as much cash to throw around as originally anticipated.
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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

There's a lot going on in NHL news right now and the financial fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic is right near the top. In any normal season, we'd be exhaling from a rush of July 1 free agency moves right now, but this isn't a normal year, is it?

Free agency will eventually happen of course, and when it does, it's not going to be the rollicking good time it usually is for players hoping to cash in on their prime seasons. Next season's salary cap has been locked in at $81.5 million and it will be frozen at that number until Hockey-Related Revenue (HRR) returns to $4.8 billion, the amount that was originally projected for this season before the stoppage.

How long will that take? Well, we know paid attendance will be zero during the 2019-20 post-season and there's no guarantee arenas will be filled to capacity in 2020-21 yet either. Yes, there is a new American TV contract on the horizon, plus expansion in Seattle, but for the short-term, GMs around the league will have to be even more cap-conscious than ever - especially because everyone assumed the cap would rise at least a few million dollars over this season's limit.

As for the players themselves, some will head into the off-season at an unfortunate time. Let's take a look at five big-time unrestricted free agents who may have to settle for less on their new contracts this off-season.

Taylor Hall, Arizona

How much would you pony up for a recent Hart Trophy winner? Hall was the league MVP in 2017-18 and he's still just 28 years old. He's got speed and we know he can put the puck in the net, skills that make him very desirable in today's game. He's also testing UFA waters for the first time in his career, so this should be a biggie. But how many teams would be able to give Hall $9 million (or more) per season right now, presumably on a long-term deal? There are teams like Dallas and Vancouver which surprisingly have a decent amount of cap space right now, but this might not be the free-for-all Hall was hoping for. On the bright side, the winger is coming off an RFA deal that netted him $42 million - so you don't have to feel too bad.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis

One of the best defensemen in the league and the captain of the most recent Stanley Cup champions, Pietrangelo could have bent the NHL to his will on the first day of free agency. But under these strange circumstances, the two-way master might have to consider his options. The Blues, the only NHL team he has ever known, are basically up against the 2020-21 cap already and veteran D-man Jay Bouwmeester's contract is coming off the books, too. Sure, GM Doug Armstrong could make some deals to get Pietrangelo back in the fold (which would be a great fit all-around), but would Pietrangelo have to take a hometown discount just to make it all work?

Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver

The goalie market is pretty decent for the off-season though teams will have to be wise in their assessment of the talent. This is where Markstrom takes a hit because he certainly deserves a big paycheck after the year he had with the Canucks, which included a trip to the All-Star Game. The big Swede is coming off his best NHL campaign ever and has never been on a contract longer than three years before. But can he find a partner willing to give him the big contract he deserves, or will Markstrom head back to another short-term deal, hoping his skills stay firm until the NHL's economy improves?

Robin Lehner, Vegas

Like Markstrom, Lehner has established himself as a top-end goalie recently and like his fellow Swede, he has done so on short-term contracts (three one-year deals in a row, to be precise). Obviously there is the whole back story of Lehner's demon-battling that explains the past contracts, but he has certainly proven his worth the past two seasons. Can he find himself a long-term contract that also gives him full value on salary? Or will the cap crunch force Lehner to make yet another concession?

Sami Vatanen, Carolina

He still hasn't actually played a game for the Hurricanes, but Vatanen - who was traded from New Jersey while injured - will eventually get back on the ice to show off his coveted puckmoving skill set. In an ordinary year, the slick blueliner would have a wide range of teams after his services, but again; this off-season will likely be more limiting. Perhaps Vatanen goes to a team that doesn't land Pietrangelo, but the price for the Finnish national won't be as high as it could have been.

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