The restricted free agent class this year is loaded. In fact, it’s always loaded – every year prolific younger players who are still within their indentured servitude to their teams until the age of 27 come up for a new contract.
And they pretty much always stay with their team.
But with a new group of younger, more aggressive general managers coming into the NHL, could this change? (Help us, Kyle Dubas, you’re our only hope! Even though he’s technically Toronto’s assistant general manager.)
Can offer sheets be used more structurally and more ably to heist a restricted free agent – especially now with so few tools to improve your team outside of a trade? And on top of this, are they now the best tool to not only help your team improve, but damage a rival?
“The old boys are over their head with the collective bargaining agreement right now and the younger more intelligent GMs in the league know how to work the CBA and know how to do these things,” a former NHL exec told Puck Daddy.
“Nobody takes this personally. It’s part of the CBA it’s where rules are. If you have a top player that comes up for contract, then that’s shame on you.”
Offer sheets – the major tool that could send a player to another team for some level of draft pick compensation based on the offer amount – have an ultra-low success rate in the post 2005 lockout world.
- Anaheim forward Dustin Penner getting offer sheeted to Edmonton in 2007, which led to then Ducks GM Brian Burke going berserk and not matching the deal.
- Shea Weber’s mega offer sheet to the Philadelphia Flyers that was matched by the Predators in 2012
- The David Backes offer sheet to Vancouver, which was matched by St. Louis in 2008.
- Ryan O’Reilly’s offer sheet from Calgary in 2013 that was matched by Colorado.
- Edmonton’s offer sheet to Thomas Vanek was matched by Buffalo in 2007.
- Ryan Kesler taking a one-year offer sheet from Philadelphia in 2006, which was matched by Vancouver.
- Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet by San Jose was matched in 2010.
- Steve Bernier’s Blues offer sheet was matched by Vancouver in 2008.
A lot depends on the player and the salary structure, along with the salary cap situation of the team that owns the rights to the player.
Why has 22-year-old Brandon Saad’s name been mentioned as a guy susceptible to an offer sheet? The Blackhawks are pushed up against the salary cap next season. Saad is going to get a hefty raise from his $833,000 salary cap hit (via NHL Numbers). Moments after Chicago won the Stanley Cup on Monday, he received questions about his upcoming deal.
Per the Chicago Tribune from the night Chicago beat Tampa in Game 6 to win The Cup he was queried about his contract:
"I'm fortunate to be a part of this great team," Saad said. "Just to be … around guys that like to win and conduct themselves in the right way, it's huge for my career."
Handled like a pro.
Chicago will likely re-sign Saad, but it’ll take a trade of some other players to get him locked up. And if a rival wanted to at very least damage the Blackhawks – who have said they will keep Saad no matter what – it could offer mega-bucks to the winger, and then squeeze the Hawks further. The Blackhawks are already looking to trade winger Patrick Sharp and likely let defenseman Johnny Oduya walk in unrestricted free agency as part of a plan to keep Saad and fit him under their salary cap next year. A poison pill of a deal could make it worse for them.
The Blackhawks are no strangers to this situation. Hjalmarsson was signed to a four-year $14 million offer sheet by San Jose in 2010 – which gave him a raise from his prior deal that saw him have a $600,000 salary cap hit.
Chicago matched, but then had to lose Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi, who was awarded a hefty raise of his own in arbitration. Chicago walked away from the deal and saw Niemi go to San Jose as an unrestricted free agent. Chicago then lost in the first round of the playoffs two seasons in a row – though not all this can be heaped on Niemi’s loss and his various replacements, lack of goaltending consistency didn’t help.
This led to some questions on whether the Sharks, who were in the goaltender market at the time, strategically did this in order to land Niemi. Or just to hurt the Hawks who beat them in the playoffs in the prior postseason.
Via the Associated Press after Niemi signed a one-year $2 million deal with San Jose in 2010:
(Sharks general manager Doug) Wilson said he was just looking to add players to help his team and the offer to Hjalmarsson was not part of a grand scheme to get Niemi on the open market.
"My job is to put the best team on the ice we can here in San Jose and operate within the rules like we did," Wilson said. "To connect the two, I'll leave that up to other people to speculate or make comments."
There is a public shame factor that may lead to fewer offer sheet amongst GMs, who often seem ‘buddy buddy’, in spite of their jobs to beat each other.
No matter what you think of Kevin Lowe’s managing ability with the Oilers, there was some level of character assassination from his peers after he tried to use offer sheets to improve his team with Vanek and Penner.
Here was Burke’s reaction to the Penner offer sheet that raised Penner’s salary from $450,000 per-year to a four-year deal for $21.25 million:
“Edmonton has offered a mostly inflated salary for a player, and I think it's an act of desperation for a general manager who is fighting to keep his job," he said.
There was also the eventual story that Burke wanted to fight Lowe in a barn.
The Vanek offer sheet by Edmonton for seven years at $50 million rankled the Sabres to an incredible degree.
Per ESPN.com when that deal was matched:
"We matched it for a lot of different reasons," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. "One, was to say to everyone in the National Hockey League, 'If you want to shop this way, don't come here."'
The Oilers move also enraged Buffalo, with Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn warning his team will consider making offers to Edmonton players in the future.
The Sabres didn’t offer sheet and Edmonton players in the future, partially because they had nobody worth an offer sheet. Lowe noted the deal was done within the parameters of the CBA, which was 100 percent correct.
“In my mind it’s a combination of an old boys network where GMs are unwilling to stand out and do something unpopular, combined with the fact that it takes a disruptive personality to engage in this type of behavior and the NHL is not full of those types of GMs,” an agent said.
Part of this may have to do with embarrassment on lack of CBA understanding by some of the older general managers or mismanagement after an offer sheet is accepted. Nobody wants to look like a fool publicly if they mess up and leave their player susceptible to an offer sheet, especially the GMs who each – understandably – have large and proud egos.
If a team can’t match the offer, it adds pressure on the general manager’s next moves.
Brian Burke turned the return for Dustin Penner into...nothing. Bob Murray salvaged a small part of the return by adding Joffrey Lupul and a 4th-round pick to acquire Francois Beauchemin who remains on the Ducks' top pairing.
As the story notes, there were a lot of moves Burke made that turned Penner into nothing. For example trading the No. 12 pick in the 2008 draft to Los Angeles – a draft that ended up being … full of high-level talent and saw Erik Karlsson go 15th to Ottawa. That No. 12 pick eventually landed with Buffalo who took a dude named Tyler Myers. He’s turned out all right for the most part. So Burke could have turned Penner into a better asset longer term, and then didn’t.
Granted hindsight is always 20/20 and who knows how the Ducks would have used that draft pick, but that was an excellent draft.
Said another agent about general managers, “They don’t research it enough, or as properly and in-depth enough, so lack the understanding of what the cost/rewards are.”
Granted agents would want more offer sheets, but this is true. It takes some legwork and more deductive reasoning from general managers who seem to not have a major desire to use this as a tool.
Offer sheets on lower-level players, such as $1,110,249 or below, wouldn’t yield compensation for example. Offer sheets don’t necessarily have to be of the mega variety on superstars. That type of deal shouldn’t PO a general manager.
Strangely the offer sheet was used far more in the pre-cap era, and with more success.
Then-Washington general manager David Poile was not allowed to match the St. Louis Blues four-year $5.1 million offer sheet to defenseman Scott Stevens and lost a future Hall of Fame defenseman. He did pick Sergei Gonchar with one of the five first-round selections he got as compensation for the offer sheet, but the sum of those parts didn’t come close to Stevens – an eventual three-time Stanley Cup winner.
Brendan Shanahan’s offer sheet by the Blues sent Stevens to New Jersey via arbitration, which was pretty much a win-win for both sides.
Joe Sakic’s offer sheet by the Rangers was matched by Colorado. Sergei Fedorov’s offer sheet from the Carolina Hurricanes was matched by the Red Wings.
Chris Gratton’s offer sheet from Philadelphia ended up being turned into Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis going to Tampa.
“They’re not usually successful. I don’t know what the success rate it. Certainly they would play less than 25 percent of the time. I think that’s the biggest thing,” the former exec said.
But at the end of the day, they’re still free to sign. And if an offer sheet is given out and signed, there are always questions on whether that player wants to stay with the team that matched it. Weber has faced those questions since he scouted the market, visited other teams and eventually signed with Philly. He basically treated it like it was his free agency.
And there is the strange publicity that comes with it in order to fire a shot at the signing team.
The Predators called matching Philly’s offer sheet to Weber the “most important transaction in franchise history.” And the team threw a party in the hot and humid Middle Tennessee summer … take it away MC Pete Weber!
Many in the organization were upset over the Flyers offer sheet, which soured the team on doing business with Philadelphia in the future.
It also creates a strange sense of pride and galvanizes a fanbase. I’ll never forget the giant banner of Weber draped outside Bridgestone Arena shortly after the offer sheet was matched. I doubt the low-key Weber was a fan of this PR stunt.
But as some of the older guard who take offense to offer sheets leave the game, or get minimized by the younger generation, this could change. The 28-year-old Dubas is just one example. The Coyotes hired 25-year-old analytics guy John Chayka as assistant general manager.
These managers aren’t calling the shots yet, but they probably will at some point. At the moment if you look at the roster of general managers, a lot are still of that sort of that older era and have long-time hockey ties. But some are smarter than your average former player – Peter Chiarelli in Edmonton, Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles, Stan Bowman in Chicago and Ray Shero in New Jersey come to mind.
Can they start the disruption for the next generation of GM’s to continue? This would be a good summer to find out.
Top-10 players in the 2015 RFA class
1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
2. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks
3. Derek Stepan, New York Rangers
4. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
5. Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens
6. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
7. Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins
8. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings
9. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
10. Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators
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