Is the restricted free-agent offer sheet becoming extinct?

Josh Harding(notes) is the 25-year-old restricted free-agent goalie for the Minnesota Wild; the one with the sterling minor-league and Lemaire-affected NHL numbers who's stuck behind Niklas Backstrom(notes) and his new four-year extension on the depth chart.

Oh, but it gets even better for Harding: The team signed Wade Dubielewicz(notes) as a potential replacement and has a team-elected arbitration hearing with Harding later this month. Even assuming a trade from the Wild, consider that the goaltending jobs have dwindled to backup spots and three-headed monsters around the NHL. Heck, even the Islanders have three starters now.

It wasn't necessarily supposed to be like this: Harding was supposed be one of the better, affordable RFA options available for a potential offer sheet. Consider he made $750,000 last season and Craig Anderson(notes), a comparable backup-to-starting goalie, signed a two-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche with a cap hit of $1.812 million.

In April, Tyler Dellow made a logical case for the Edmonton Oilers to target Harding before they decided to ink Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) -- including the fact that the Wild would have been put in a very unwanted position if they decided to match an offer sheet.

Yet one never arrived; nor has it for that other RFA darling, Phil Kessel(notes) of the Boston Bruins, or for New York Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky(notes). Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe writes today there have only been five since the latest CBA was ratified: "Philadelphia to Ryan Kesler(notes), Edmonton to Thomas Vanek(notes), Edmonton to Penner, Vancouver to David Backes(notes), and St. Louis to Steve Bernier(notes)."

Considering that, and the current economic climate, Shinzawa asks if the RFA offer sheet is, in fact, extinct.

Shinzawa believes there could still be an offer sheet coming to Kessel as training camp nears, but admits that the time for one would have been right around the Free Agent Frenzy. From the Globe:

Now, following nearly four weeks of free agency, clubs are filling out their 2009-10 lineups and spending their cash. It would most likely require an offer sheet of $5 million or more for the Bruins to consider allowing Kessel to go.

Teams that have $5 million plus to spend, such as the Islanders, Columbus, and Phoenix, have that much space for a reason - they're not going to approach the cap. Also, those teams generally rebuild via the draft. A team that signs Kessel would have to fork over first-, second-, and third-round picks to the Bruins, in itself an expensive bounty, to say nothing of the cash they would owe their new player.

Looking ahead to next year, teams could have less funds available (a $3 million decrease is a common estimate), which makes it even unlikelier that offer sheets will be extended. Considering the circumstances, it may be time to term the offer sheet extinct.

It's a fair point, and one that becomes even more valid when you consider the old-boys politicking that keeps offer sheets from flying around the League. Please recall the sound of Dean Lombardi's pimp hand with the Los Angeles Kings last summer:

"We're not only going to match any offer sheet, we'll have enough space to go after your guys. Go ahead and make our day. If you sign our guy, we're coming back with both barrels firing. You'd better be damn straight that you have the cap space and all your guys are signed."

When you've got GMs making Dirty Harry cracks to the media on top of the obvious economic and future talent investment, RFA offer sheets could essentially go from rare to non-existent. The question is whether the players can get their acts together by the next CBA negotiation to argue for loosening free-agency policy, if that's a fight they even want to have.

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