The NHL Offer Sheets Unwritten Rule

As we are down to two teams facing each other in the Stanley Cup finals, we are also about a month away from the NHL Draft and the Free Agents’ frenzy. Teams will be allowed to speak to pending UFA’s and RFA’s of other teams starting the day after the Draft, which will be held at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Friday, June 21st and Saturday, June 22nd. So starting bright and early on June 23rd, NHL GM’s will be trying to lure away some players whom they feel would help improve their respective team and on July 1st, they can sign them to a contract. While recent history has proven to be better known for the Unrestricted Free Agents period, each and every year, media and fans alike are wondering if finally, a GM or two will have the courage to sign a player to an offer sheet.

First of all, we must understand what an offer sheet is and who is eligible to sign such offers. An offer sheet is a contract offered to a restricted free agent (RFA) by a team other than the one for which he played during the prior season. If the player signs the offer sheet, his current team has seven days to match the contract offer and keep the player or else he goes to the team that gave the offer sheet, with compensation going to his first team. Restricted (Group 2) NHL free agents can discuss new contracts with other teams beginning on the day after the Draft, which is also the deadline for a team to make a qualifying offer. Discussions must cease if a player accepts a contract from his own team or if he is confirmed to go into arbitration with his team.

The last offer sheet which ended up being unmatched was the signing of Dustin Penner by the Edmonton Oilers on July 26, 2007. Brian Burke and the Anaheim Ducks decided that the 5-year, $21.5 million offer was too rich for their blood to match and instead, accepted the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks in 2008 as compensation. But it didn’t take more to fire up Burke who went into a very public verbal dispute with then Oilers’ General Manager Kevin Lowe.

“I like Kevin Lowe and I respect Kevin Lowe. But what he did was just so stupid to me and I fried him and then he challenged me to a fight on the air.” ~ Brian Burke

The next offer sheet – or should I say offer sheets – occured the following off-season when the Vancouver Canucks, then managed by rookie GM Mike Gillis, signed David Backes of the St. Louis Blues to a 3-year, $7.5 million contract. The Blues matched and then GM Larry Pleau went a step further by getting revenge on the Canucks a week later by signing pending RFA Steve Bernier to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. The Canucks also matched but they ended up paying Bernier much more than they wanted to because of it. It is important to note that Gillis has since been fired and so far, has never been hired as GM while Pleau resigned from the position in 2010, two years after the offer sheets were exchanged.

Shea Weber’s current contract was the results of an offer sheet by the Philadelphia Flyers, matched at the time by the Predators.

Since then, there have been only three (3) more offer sheets signed by NHL General Managers and the most lucrative all-time was when Philadelphia Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren tried to scoop All-Star defenseman Shea Weber from the Nashville Predators, signing him to a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet. Preds’ GM David Poile ended up matching the offer which finally ended up forcing them to trade away Weber when a $13 million signing bonus, due on July 1st, 2016, was too rich for the ownership’s pockets.

PLAYERDATEOFFER AMOUNTORIGINAL TEAMOFFER TEAMRESULTSNOTES
Ryan Kesler2006-09-121 yr – $1.9MCanucksFlyersMatched
Thomas Vanek2007-07-067 yrs – $50MSabresOilersMatched
Dustin Penner2007-07-265 yrs – $21.5MDucksOilersAccepted1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks in 2008
David Backes2008-07-013 yrs – $7.5MBluesCanucksMatched
Steve Bernier2008-07-081 yr – $2.5MCanucksBluesMatched
Niklas Hjalmarsson2010-07-094 yrs – $14MBlackhawksSharksMatched
Shea Weber2012-07-1814 yrs – $110MPredatorsFlyersMatched
Ryan O’Reilly2013-02-282 yrs – $10MAvalancheFlamesMatched

A tool under-utilized?

Players want the offer sheets to be used as it helps them bring the salaries up for everyone. Fans want to see this tool used more because it would generate some additional excitement with the potential of player-movement. But why isn’t it used more if it’s “legal” under the terms of the collective agreement? There are at least three very legitimate reasons why no offer sheet has been signed since 2013… and don’t think for a second that there hasn’t been any quality RFA’s available on the last six years!

1- Hard Salary Cap

As a GM, you have to contend with either the hard salary cap imposed by the league if you manage a team spending to the ceiling, or you have your own internal salary cap set by the owners if you’re running more of a budget team. Either way, in order to stand a chance to sign a player to an offer sheet with your team, the GM will have to go at least slightly above “market value”, or what the team owning the player’s rights is willing to pay him. In both case, whether you – or any other GM – sign a player to an offer sheet, it raises the average salary and cuts back on somewhat “cheaper labour”. Further, it inflates the salaries of similar production players around the NHL, including your own, in their next negotiation.

2- Steep Compensation

In order to sign a player to an offer sheet, a GM must, first and foremost, have the necessary picks to be able to compensate the other team in the event that they chose not to match the offer. For one thing, the picks must not only have all of the necessary picks, but they must be their own, not picks acquired through trades with other teams.

Here are the teams capable of signing offer sheets based on salary compensation:

Source: CapFriendly.com

So as you can see, a top-end player signed at $8.5M AAV per season costs four picks including two first rounders. Signing a player with an offer sheet of over $10.6M AAV would leave the team without a first round pick for the next four years!

Here’s an important twist however, that many don’t know… The compensation limits are the AAV of the offer sheet averaged over the length of the contract to an upper limit of five years. Here is an example to explain this: If a team signs a player to an offer sheet for 7-years at 10 million ($10M AAV), that seems at first look to require two first-round picks, one second and one third, right? That’s not the case! That $70 million has to be divided by five, so it’s actually an AAV of $14 million, and is a top-tier, four first-round picks compensation offer sheet.

3- Fear of Retribution

This is perhaps the point the most overlooked by media members and fans alike yet, it might just be the single most important point for NHL teams and their General Managers. Paul Holmgren admitted that he was forced to step down from his position as GM of the Philadelphia Flyers because of the offer sheet he signed Weber to. Why? Because no one wanted to do business with him afterwards. He was on the “blacklist” amongst NHL GMs.

Paul Holmgren admitted having to step down as Flyers’ GM because no one wanted to deal with him after signing Shea Weber to an offer sheet.

“It’s hard to do this job if you have a bad relationship, or at least a perceived bad relationship, with any number of GMs.” ~ Paul Holmgren

Unlike any other year, this summer’s list is very interesting, to say the least. I like sorting them by time on the ice per game as it often shows how valuable those players are already, gauging by how much they were counted on by their coaches. Feel free to click the link below the picture to sort them as you with on CapFriendly.com.

Source: Capfriendly.com

To get a full picture, one would have to take the time to look at teams individually and see how many NHL contracts they each have, how many pending key UFA’s and RFA’s they have to re-sign, and how close they are to the Salary Cap to determine how many teams in total would be capable of signing a RFA to an offer sheet which would either guarantee them the player, or at least put the other team in a tight spot if they chose to match the offer.

“When you sit in this chair, you’ve got to think long-term also,” Bergevin said at his end-of-season presser, noting the steep price tag of four firsts. “Trust me, it’s a tool [the offer sheet] that we look at all the time.”

While everything is possible, it is unlikely to see Marc Bergevin sign a player to an offer sheet.

That said, rest assured Habs’ fans, Marc Bergevin was being politically correct with this quote and he is very unlikely looking at the offer sheet tool as a serious option if he wants to keep a job as GM in the NHL. While very competitive and even cut-throat at times, NHL GM’s are a tight brotherhood and coaches and GM’s are being blacklisted from time to time. Pleau, Gillis and Holmgren found out the hard way, Ted Nolan has never been offered another job in the NHL (aside from a short stint back with the Sabres in 2013) after throwing his then GM John Muckler under the bus and Patrick Roy, after putting Joe Sakic in a bind by quitting late in the summer, has yet to return to the NHL in any functions.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the way for Bergevin to address his biggest need for a top-4 left-handed defenseman would be through trade. He will be going hard after Matt Duchene though. The ideal summer for Bergevin and the Habs would be, in my humble opinion, if he signs pending UFA Matt Duchene and trades for a top-4 left defenseman to play tough minutes with Weber. At the very least, he MUST finally address the need for that elusive defenseman. Anything short of that would be a huge disappointment. Go Habs Go!

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Pending Free Agents: Class of 2019

It’s early, the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is just starting and talks about free agents is somewhat premature. Having said that, when your team is eliminated, there isn’t much to look forward to except for their next move, the next big date and that date is about two months away, at the NHL Draft. The next day, teams will be able to talk to pending UFAs and on July 1st, players will be able to announce their choice.

Much can change from now until the actual date but let’s explore the possibilities as they stand today and admittedly, those lists will look somewhat different at that time. Regardless, let’s do the exercise, shall we?

Team needs

Ever since Marc Bergevin traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, there has been a huge hole on Weber’s left. You see, Weber plays big minutes against the opposition’s top lines game in, game out and it’s not everyone who can do that. At the top of his game, Andrei Markov was the perfect partner for the one they call Man Mountain but he was getting too old to play top minutes. Victor Mete did okay but he’s not the ideal candidate. Bergevin MUST finally address this gaping hole on his team and if he fails to do so once again, many people, myself included, will be very disappointed in him.

Also, the powerplay was atrocious and it needs some sort of injection. Whether it be a top-end right-handed goals’ scorer or a left-handed pointman (they have Weber and Petry on the right side), Bergevin needs to help his coaching staff by providing them with the necessary tools to fix a powerplay that finished 30th in the NHL with a 13.2% success rate and was too often a momentum killer for the Canadiens last season.

While I personally fully expect that Bergevin’s biggest splash will be through a trade or two as he’s always done, let’s still have a look at the pending unrestricted free agents’ pool this upcoming July first. Granted, it’s early and some of these guys will re-sign with their respective team but as it stands right now, it promises to be an interesting off-season, a buyers’ market if we can say.

Defensemen

The Canadiens’ depth chart on the right side is deep, very deep with quality assets both older and younger. Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Christian Folin, Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury and Brett Lernout form a solid depth group on right defense. But on the left, there are numbers but the quality is lacking, particularly at the top end. Victor Mete, Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly are in the NHL and Jordie Benn is, at the time of writing this, a pending UFA. Alexander Romanov is the team’s best hope but he has one year left to his contract in the KHL and he is likely a few years away from having an impact at the NHL level. Gustav Olofsson is interesting and he will be coming back from injury. Scott Walford and Jarret Tyszka are good projects but they too are a few years away.

Having said all of that, here are some of the top pending UFA’s on defense:

Alex Edler has made it clear that he wants to stay in Vancouver and the Canucks would like to have him back. Marc Methot has slowed down the last two years and so has Niklas Kronwall. The most interesting might be Jake Gardiner but according to TSN Insiders, he should fetch between 6-8 million per season for seven years. That’s way too rich for him and I would personally stay away from him. He’s simply not that good. Ben Chiarot might be an interesting gamble but is he really an improvement over what the Habs already have? I think that the best way to get what he wants would be for Bergevin to sacrifice a forward or two to get the right fit and two names come to mind: Anaheim’s Cam Fowler and Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere, both of which can also man the point on the powerplay.

Forwards

At forward, it’s a different story. The Canadiens are deep at that position and so is their depth chart. Max Domi was a very pleasant surprise at centre and unless a Matt Duchene type of players lands in Montreal, he’s likely to stay at that position. But there are currently plenty of very interesting names on that list and Bergevin should have a chance at picking at least one of them… if the price is right.

Of course the two biggest fish are Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Panarin apparently wants to play in a big US market but many link Duchene to the Habs because “he grew up a Habs’ fan”. We all know how that works out most times so don’t hold your breath folks. If I’m Bergevin, it doesn’t matter if it’s a centre or a winger, I go after the best player available as Domi could go back to the wing if need be. It’s easier to make a winger out of a centre than the other way around.

Pending RFA’s

I have to touch on that because some feel like offer sheets are a tool that NHL GMs don’t use often enough. As we’ve touched on before, Paul Holmgren explained that offer sheets can be devastating to a GM’s career and that is predominantly why we don’t see them. That and usually, the price is steep, very steep for the more lucrative contract offers.

OFFER SHEET (AVG)COMPENSATION
$1,339,575 or belowNone
Over $1,339,575 to $2,029,593rd
Over $2,029,59 to $4,059,3222nd
Over $4,059,322 to $6,088,9801st, 3rd
Over $6,088,980 to $8,118,6411st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $8,118,641 to $10,148,302(2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $10,148,302(4) 1st

Still, here’s this year’s list of pending RFA’s:

Some folks see the signing of Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal as a sign that Bergevin will be satisfied with minor signing. That’s either ill intent or ignorant on their part as the Canadiens’ GM has always been one of the most active on the trade front since taking over in Montreal… and it’s only April 27th! You can expect much of the same this upcoming summer. They have a plan and will follow through with it. The future is bring in Montreal. Go Habs Go!