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A lot of people spent much of this week talking about a player their favorite team was never going to sign.
If Steven Stamkos(notes) is not one of the three best forwards in the league right now, he's certainly one of the top five. He's also 21, has scored 96 goals in the last two seasons and, thanks to a baffling quirk of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement with its Players Association, is going to stay in Tampa for a very, very long time.
The picture being painted in the days before the free agent frenzy, of course, was that there was a large and hungry pack of wolves ready to tear Stamkos from Tampa's loving arms.
But despite the inevitability of his re-signing, three basic questions were hooted and hollered from all corners of the hockey world in the run-up to free agency:
Would he receive one or five or 29 offer sheets?
Would he sign one of them?
Would he re-up with the Tampa Lightning?
Without even knowing all the final answers, it's pretty safe to assume that the answers to those questions, in order, are "Probably not," "Definitely not," and "Of course."
The reason for this is that offer sheets are exceptionally uncommon, even though a large number of very talented restricted free agents have hit the market (in their own way) since the CBA was signed.
Of the dozens who have, just six players have been given offer sheets (Ryan Kesler(notes) by Philadelphia in 2006, Thomas Vanek(notes) and Dustin Penner(notes) by Edmonton in 2007, David Backes(notes) and Steve Bernier(notes) by Vancouver and St. Louis, respectively, in 2008 and Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes) by San Jose last summer).
Only Penner, whose offer sheet was well above a reasonable salary for a player of his caliber at the time, signed with the other team. The Ducks, in a fit of sanity, declined to match and instead took Edmonton's first-, second- and third-round picks in the following draft. The rest re-upped with their original teams for salaries ranging from commensurate (Kesler, Backes, Bernier) to inflated (Vanek, Hjalmarsson).
But why is something that's built into the CBA so rarely used by general managers to swoop in and snatch promising young players? Doesn't it make sense that they would take advantage of all the tools available to them since the ultimate goal is to build the best team possible in an effort to try to win a Stanley Cup?
Apart from the fact that most teams don't have a combination of the cap space and requisite picks to extend Stamkos an offer sheet he'd consider signing, there are a few answers as to why this just isn't going to happen. Each is stranger (and dumber) than the last.
And all of them were caused by Brian Burke in one way or another.
One of the primary reasons for this is that there are 30 NHL general managers, and they like to be able to do business with one another free of all encumbrances, including hard feelings. Take, for example, the long-simmering and now rarely-mentioned spat between Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe that set all this nonsense in motion. The Kesler-to-Philly offer sheet was quietly handled and no one really cared (or now remember that it happened at all).
But it was Lowe who started this mess when that slid Penner the big five-year, $21.5 million offer sheet in 2008, when Burke was still GM of the Ducks. And while he opted not to match, Burke still raised a big stink over it, despite the fact that it was, again, a clear and legal part of the CBA.
The move caused him to rage on and on to anyone who would listen, all about how Lowe had essentially eliminated the so-called "second contract" for players coming off their entry-level agreements (which is true, by the way), and the general lack of morality it must take for a guy to be so "gutless" as to try to lure guys with bigger salaries than they would have gotten when the second contract existed. All in an effort to make his team better. The nerve!
Of note, however, is that while Burke has since foresworn all offer sheetery, it sure as heck didn't stop him from using the threat of one to acquire Phil Kessel(notes) from the Bruins. But that leads us to the second reason there are so few offer sheets these days: there seems to be an unspoken accord among GMs that any team with an interest in a restricted free agent should first try to trade for that player with a reasonable offer.
Burke felt within his rights to use the looming specter of such a move, because he offered Boston Tomas Kaberle(notes) and the No. 7 overall pick on draft day in 2009, but was rebuffed. He then reacquired the second-round pick he needed to offer sheet Kessel instead, scaring the Bruins into making The Phil Kessel Trade which everyone will talk about at least until Dougie Hamilton retires.
(Of course, any trade offer for Stamkos, no matter how rich, would have been rejected outright and enthusiastically.)
The third reason teams won't offer-sheet other restricted free agents is that because of Burke, GMs now kick up a big stink pretty much any time one is extended (and though I don't necessarily recall one over Hjalmarsson, Stan Bowman did once say that he thought one was not forthcoming because "offer sheets don't concern me," so he may have been stunned into silence).
Dean Lombardi, for example, has loudly proclaimed that any team to extend one of his RFAs an offer sheet would have all of their targeted by the Los Angeles Kings, possibly for all eternity. It's safe to assume that most other GMs have similar policies. This mutually-assured destruction comes because GMs do not find the realities of the agreed-upon collective bargaining agreement palatable.
But the biggest — and worst — reason is that there now seems to exist, probably as a consequence of the above three factors, a gentleman's agreement that offer sheets are simply not a thing that's done.
Hockey is, after all, an old boys' club, full of lifelong buddies who don't really want to screw each other over despite being given equitable avenues to do so. This, of course, comes at the expense of arguably (or in Stamkos' case, clearly) making their teams better. Granted, it would have taken a lot of term and cash to get Stamkos to even consider any offer sheet, and Tampa would have almost certainly matched it. But even the idea of pressuring Tampa with a deal that would have cut heavily into its cap number for a long time seems to have been deemed distasteful, for reasons no one is especially clear on.
So no, Tampa won't have to fight off a pack of suitors to keep their wunderkind sniper under contract. Any talk to the contrary was just coming from the boys who cried wolf.
Onward Christian Ehrhoff
This week saw the free agent negotiating rights to Christian Ehrhoff shipped from Vancouver to Long Island, then Long Island to Buffalo.
And that's when things got truly and thoroughly weird.
Rather than let him escape to unrestricted free agency, as was his apparent plan all along, the Sabres decided to bowl him over with a terrible, incomprehensible deal that would pay him $40 million over 10 years. That is, of course, not a bad cap hit today, even if they will be paying him until he's nearly 39 years old.
But the Sabres limited their liability somewhat. While that ugly cap hit in the seasons when he's between 35 and 38 — and perhaps even out of the NHL — won't necessarily be comfortable, it will be mitigated by the fact that he'll be paid a total of $3 million total in those years.
That means that, yes, the Sabres will somehow be able to get away with paying Ehrhoff a total of $18 million of his deal between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. And it's utter lunacy.
Front-loaded contracts have become a problem in the NHL, and if guys are making 45 percent of the money owed them in two seasons, then it's becoming a rather serious one. The league wanted to make an example out of Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) and the New Jersey Devils and, apparently, has failed. If the Sabres are allowed to escape this with no punishment, the the whole system has lost the plot.
Frankly, the move reeks of desperation on the part of a new and overeager owner who wants to make positive steps toward re-establishing the humdrum name of the Buffalo Sabres in the hockey world.
But Terry Pegula, for all his massive amounts of money, is playing with his new toy a little too joyously for his own good and the good of the other 29 franchises in the league. How many great or even good franchises has owners who are more recognizable than some of his team's players?
If anything, this is an indicator that Brad Richards(notes) is going to get about a trillion dollars over the next 40 years today, with $800 billion of that paid to him before 2015 (and perhaps, by the time you read this, it's already happened). He might get it from Buffalo, maybe from someone else. But it's definitely coming.
No question, the Devils set a dangerous precedent with the Kovalchuk deal last year, but at least they paid a lot of money for a top-flight offensive threat who everyone more or less agreed was worth what he got paid, even if it was flagrant cap circumvention. But Ehrhoff is a power play specialist No. 2 defenseman on his best days, and in no way worth the money he's being paid. While the deal is indeed within the parameters of the CBA, it doesn't make it any less stupid. And it's still flagrant cap circumvention, whether or not the league cares to admit it.
Giving contracts like this to players who aren't worth that kind of deal is — and there's no other way to say this — is just awful for the NHL. It's bad for the Sabres and it's bad for your favorite team, because now any old No. 2 or 3 defenseman can hit free agency and say, "Where's my $40 million and 10 years?"
And that's no good for anyone. Except No. 2 or 3 defensemen.
Pearls of Biz-dom
BizNasty on imparting his expertise:
"My goal in Lake Placid teaching at CAN/AM is to teach the American kids. That way Canada will still have the best players in the future."
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