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NHL teams making moves, not waiting for top free agents

NHL: MAR 06 Coyotes at Flames

CALGARY, AB - MARCH 06: Arizona Coyotes Left Wing Taylor Hall (91) warms up before an NHL game where the Calgary Flames hosted the Arizona Coyotes on March 6, 2020, at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, AB. (Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Taylor Hall went unsigned during the first day of free agency. Same with Alex Pietrangelo and Mike Hoffman.

A handful of the top free agents are still available, but NHL teams aren’t waiting for those big fish to sign to make other moves. Boston paused its pursuit of Hall to sign big winger Craig Smith; Columbus shored up its center depth by inking veteran center Mikko Koivu while keeping tabs on other options and Carolina put its goaltending shopping on hold to add speedy forward Jesper Fast.

“Some of those players are very unique and high-level players and they’re probably searching for right opportunity for them,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said after giving Smith $9.3 million over three years. “And then when it comes, they’ll find their landing spot. I think all the other teams are doing the exact same thing. I think we’ll continue to have those conversations.”

Some conversations are happening by phone or video chat and others in person. Pietrangelo flew to Vegas on Saturday to visit the Golden Knights, who have been clearing salary cap space to try to accommodate the 2019 Stanley Cup-winning defenseman.

Vegas needs to make another move or two to fit Pietrangelo, and it’s not alone in clearing the books for a big move. Nashville, which bought out Kyle Turris and let Smith leave in free agency, traded forward Austin Watson to Ottawa for a 2021 fourth-round pick.

The Blue Jackets bought out Alexander Wennberg and made some other salary-saving decisions, but don’t expect them to go big name hunting. Koivu signed for $1.5 million for next season, and they need to re-up top center Pierre-Luc Dubois and other restricted free agents.

Columbus will also bide its time waiting out the market.

“There are teams that are in a little bit of dire straits or whatever you want to call it right now with their cap space,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “There could be some opportunities down the line here if we keep that flexibility. Teams have to move money, and in order to move money, they might have to move some really good players.”

Some good free agents found new homes Saturday. Fast signed a $6 million, three-year deal with the Hurricanes, the Detroit Red Wings added goaltender Thomas Greiss and defenseman Troy Stecher and the Dallas Stars got good value with defenseman Mark Pysyk on a $750,000, one-year contract.

Stecher wasn’t the only defenseman to leave Vancouver, as Chris Tanev joined the Calgary Flames for four years and $18 million. Calgary spent even bigger in goal earlier Friday when it signed former Canucks netminder Jacob Markstrom to a $36 million, six-year deal.

The Buffalo Sabres signed center Cody Eakin to a $4.5 million, two-year contract, according to a person with direct knowledge of the deal. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the move had not been announced.

While Pietrangelo was traveling to Vegas, teams made a handful of smaller moves Saturday: Edmonton signed defenseman Tyson Barrie for $3.75 million and brought back goalie Mike Smith for $2 million, Winnipeg added former Philadelphia center Nate Thompson, and Pittsburgh took a flier on 2013 first-round pick Frederik Gauthier.

Barrie took less money than his old team in Toronto gave T.J. Brodie and joined the Oilers in lieu accepting a bigger offer.

“It wasn’t about money this year,” Barrie said. “It’s about reestablishing myself and show the league I’m still a pretty good player.”

With less money to go around because of the flat $81.5 million cap, many teams were focused on re-signing restricted free agents. Colorado gave forwards Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin two-year deals, San Jose signed Kevin Labanc for four years and Minnesota signed Jordan Greenway for $4.2 million over two years.

More moves are coming in free agency and by trade to continue the leaguewide shakeup.

“We’re certainly exploring all the avenues,” Sweeney said. “We’re comfortable having conversations with the remaining free agents that we feel would help our club.”