Aho Offer Sheet: Bergevin Skating On Thin Ice?

You sort of expect it to happen every year, but it doesn’t. Yet, it’s totally legal according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Every single year, there’s a tool totally under-utilized by NHL General Managers for what seems to be a boys’ club unwritten rule. And then BOOM! There it is. A good young Restricted Free Agent signs a contract with a team other than their own. And the Montreal Canadiens shocked the hockey world on this Canada Day of by going for it, by signing a good young talent to an offer sheet. But it comes at what risk?

Desperate times call for desperate measures… and it seems like Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin has reached that desperation level. The Canadiens apparently were in discussions up until the very end with two high profile pending UFA’s in Matt Duchene and Anders Lee.

Matt Duchene tells @DavidAmber he was close to signing in Montreal. Has tremendous respect for that franchise.#signingseason— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) July 1, 2019

But as we know, Duchene put pen to paper with the Nashville Predators, a seven year deal worth $56 million. Tennessee has the third most attractive tax rate amongst NHL teams after the two Florida teams. In order to match the Preds’ average of $8 million, the Habs would have had to offer him around $71.4 million ($10.2M AVV) for the same net pay in Duchene’s pockets.

Having missed on Duchene, then the news came out that it was down to the Habs and the Islanders for signing Anders Lee.

All signs point towards the #Habs and #Isles battling for Anders Lee— Andy Strickland (@andystrickland) July 1, 2019

But just before the official announcement that Lee had signed an extension with the Islanders, the Canadiens announced that they had signed restricted free agent Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet.

The offer sheet signed by Aho

While I won’t deny that Bergevin and his team had this option lined up for a while, it seems pretty obvious that it was plan C for them. Seeing that plan A (Duchene) and B (Lee) didn’t work, Bergevin certainly didn’t want to come out of yet another free agency summer without at least trying something. To me, this is a sign of desperation not because Aho isn’t a worthy candidate, but because Bergevin is willing to risk his relationship with fellow GMs to make something happen.

According to sources, Carolina got calls from 3 different teams today on Sebastian Aho, hinting at an offer sheet. The ‘Canes told them they would match any offer sheet. Carolina did tell them they would entertain trade conversation. Believe that Habs is among 3 teams who called— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) July 1, 2019

What I will give full credit to Bergevin for is how he handled the situation. As mentioned by NHL Insider Pierre LeBrun, the Canadiens’ GM did call his homologue Don Waddell prior to presenting an offer to Aho. And in his press conference from Carolina, Waddell acknowledged that fact.

Bergy did things right though. Waddell did say that the #Habs contacted him trying to work out a trade prior to the offer sheet. #GoHabsGo
Bergevin a fait les choses proprement. Waddell a dit que les #Canadiens l’ont contacté pour compléter un échange avant l’offre hostile.— 📰 J.D. Lagrange 🎙 (@Habsterix) July 1, 2019

In his own press conference, Bergevin qualified his offer as tactical based on Carolina’s “situation”. It’s a well published fact that the Canes’ owner, Thomas Dundon is in hot water, having invested $250 million into the Alliance of American Football that shut down soon after. So their offer to Aho was heavily bonus structured, with all bonuses due on the first of July except the first one, due 5 days after the approval of the contract. Here’s how the contract is structured:

Aho agreed to a five-year, $42.27 million deal, coming with a cap hit of $8.45 million cap hit. As shown above, only $3.65 million of the $42.27 million is actual salary. The rest ($38.62 million) is bonuses.

Interesting to note that the first $11.3 million will be due 5 days after the contract is made official. Then he will get paid $700,000 the following season, with an additional $9.87 million bonus due on July 1st, 2020. Based on Gary Bettman‘s historical negotiation tactics, we may very well see a lockout that year, affecting revenues. So that’s a grand total of $21.87 million in hard cash within the first 12 months! Can Dundon swallow that pill?

According to Forbes the #Habs made $90 million at the gate, operating income $102 million.

Canes $27 million at the gate, -$3.9 operating income.

Dundon does not like to spend, and this team makes zero money…this week will be a hard one to guess what will happen.— Eric Lepine (@ericlepine26) July 1, 2019

The risk is real

As we’ve explored on this very blog, breaking the Code as GM can be costly. As former Philadelphia Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren mentioned in Jay Greenberg‘s book “The Philadelphia Flyers at 50”, offer sheets can have serious repercussions. One of the reasons Holmgren stepped down from the general manager’s job was because he sensed other GMs didn’t want to deal with him after he signed restricted free-agent Shea Weber to a 14-year, $110-million offer sheet in 2012.

“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,” Holmgren told Greenberg.

Holmgren said that even though restricted free-agent offers are legal, they are “really frowned upon” and that his relationship with a lot of other general managers “changed.”

Marc Bergevin

And it had. After the Weber offer sheet was signed and matched, Holmgren has completed 12 trades, all of them considered minor trades. To the point where he felt like it was best for the team to step down and let Ron Hextall do the General Manager’s duties.

With that information, you can choose to ignore this reality, like many fans I’ve exchanged with on Twitter by finding 1,000 excuses, or you can be legitimately concerned about Bergevin’s ability to further improve his team with the NHL GMs blacklisting him. Yes, it’s a “what if” scenario and no one is hoping more that yours truly that GMs will get over it. But ignoring that possibility is a huge mistake.

Either way, I’m truly hoping that the Habs are successful as Aho is a very good young player. Either way, the damage could already be done. Let’s hope not. Go Habs Go!

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Erik Karlsson or Matt Duchene? It’s All Here.

Twitter is heating up… rumours are starting to fly… NHL Insiders are starting to get some material fed to them, which they pass on to fans… players and teams are jousting for position, looking for a Summer game plan. The NHL Draft will be held in Vancouver on Friday, June 21st and Saturday, June 22nd. The very next day, pending free agents (restricted and unrestricted) will be allowed to speak to teams other than the one they finished the season with, in order to gauge not only interest, but contract details to see if there is a fit or not. How exciting!

When you’re in a hot bed like Montreal or Toronto, this is enough to keep everyone in the sports media industry employed and when big names are being mentioned, it makes front page of local newspapers and occupy sports radio and TV shows for days. Remember the John Tavares watch last summer? Remember the Toronto sports TV stations going on, and on, and on about the possibility of him going to the Maple Leafs? Remember how they were all but laughing at the Montreal Canadiens because JT didn’t even want to give them a chance to talk to him? Well folks, the roles are reversed this year.

Two of the top pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs), defenseman Erik Karlsson and centre Matt Duchene, seem to have strong ties to the Canadiens and that, folks, has the City buzzing as the Stanley Cup finals between the rival Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues are battling it out for the Holy Grail, still two and a half weeks away from the June 23rd date.

Matt Duchene

It’s been well documented that one of Duchene’s favourite teams growing up was the Montreal Canadiens. While this doesn’t guarantee that a player, later in life, will want to play for them, it certainly doesn’t hurt as we witnessed a year ago with Tavares.

Sportsnet and CBC analyst and well respected NHL Insider Elliott Friedman had this to say on a recent 31 thoughts podcasts on pending UFAs:

Yes, Max Domi did well in his first year at centre. Some fans are concerned that moving him back to the wing risks bringing him back to his production in Arizona. It’s not the case. Both Max and his father Tie Domi have said numerous times that the younger Domi needs to play in a hockey market. He thrives under pressure. It’s not the fact that he was moved to centre that brought him success, it’s the breath of fresh air of playing in Montreal that did it. They believe that. I believe that.

Matt Duchene stating that he’s a huge Habs and Avs’ fan growing up

Adding a legitimate offensive centre like Duchene, a perennial 30 goals scorer, a guy whose faceoffs’ percentage has ranged anywhere between 52.18% to 62.57% in the last five years, and the potential of putting Domi to his left, would improve the Canadiens immensely.

Yes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be good and he’ll continue to improve but we can’t make the same mistake the Edmonton Oilers have done with their young prospects by putting them in roles they’re not ready for. Playing on a 2A or 2B line (Phillip Danault centering the other) and sheltering him for a couple more seasons would be the sound decision.

Yes, Ryan Poehling had a great game in his NHL debuts last season. But until the World Junior tournament last year, the guy has never been seen as more than a future third line centre. He’s used to playing 30 games a year in the NCAA and will need some maturing. Not physically in his case, but hockey-wise.

Yes, Nick Suzuki had a great camp last year and he had a fantastic year in the OHL, particularly in the playoffs. He is the Canadiens’ only right-handed centre prospect, which is important. But both he and Poehling would greatly benefit from a year or two of maturing under Laval Rockets’ head coach Joel Bouchard. It’s the old adage: better to play big minutes with a key role in the AHL as a young player than fourth line minutes in the NHL. As good as they are, they are not (yet) in Kotkaniemi’s talent pool.

Duchene’s next contract

I’m not in the secrets of the gods here. I have however done some research and from it, I personally figure that Duchene, who earned $6 million per season, should see a substantial raise. I figure that anywhere between $8-9 million would be in the ballpark as this would put him in the category of the likes of Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Getzlaf, Blake Wheeler and yes… Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

If you combine with my Facebook page pool, the total is:
45.5% – Duchene
44.7% – Karlsson
9.8% – None of them
Combined total of 1,096 participants.

Erik Karlsson

According to the Ottawa Sun, citing a well-connected source, the two-times Norris Trophy winner hopes to receive competitive offers from two teams in particular — the Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. Why? Because his wife, Melinda, who was born and raised in Ottawa, is homesick and would very much like to live close to her family again. While Toronto and Buffalo are also relatively close to Canada’s capital, the source says that, as far as he knows, they’re not on the Karlsson’s list.

Many Habs’ fans are going completely crazy about this news. Some because they have yet to swallow the P.K. Subban trade, others because they remember the Karlsson of… three years ago! You know, the fast skating, point per game player who was a big contributor to getting the Senators to the Stanley Cup finals. Those people conveniently forgot the Karlsson two years ago who battled a serious ankle injury, and this past season’s Karlsson battling a sore groin which he just had surgery on.

The narrative that the addition of Karlsson will make the Canadiens Cup contenders is based on him getting back to his old form of three years ago. Further, did the San Jose Sharks, a much better team than Montreal, a team with Brent Burns on the blue line, win the Cup with Karlsson? Why would the addition of Karlsson make the Canadiens a Stanley Cup contender?

No matter where he signs, Karlsson should have 11-12 million reasons to smile.

I’m from the school of thoughts that a defenseman’s number one job is to defend. Points are an added bonus. For those who, like me, were fortunate enough to watch Bobby Orr play, he was an outstanding defender and tough as nail. The bonus is that he was an excellent skater who changed the game by supporting, even driving the offense. But he was a defender first. Karlsson? People look at the points and “forget” about the defense. Oh you want proof?

In 2016-2017, the Sens’ All-Star had, in my opinion, the best all-around season of his career. He managed 71 points in 77 games with a respectable +10 rating. In the playoffs that year, he added 18 points in 19 games with an outstanding +13. Even his 2015-2016 season when he had 82 points in 82 games wasn’t that great considering that he was -2 that year. Oh I know, plus-minus isn’t the end of it all but if you’re on the ice for more goals against than goals’ for, it’s never a good thing. It negates the points you put up.

His play drastically dropped in the past two years, mostly due to injuries affecting his speed, as pointed out above. In 124 regular season games, he managed 107 points (12 of them goals) and was… -19 overall. While some people are raving about his 16 points in 19 games in the playoffs this postseason, he was -3. His teammate Brent Burns had 16 points in 20 games and was +2. Remember folks… in order to help your team, you have to be on the ice for more goals for than goals against and that, even when putting up a lot of points as to win hockey games, you need to outscore your opponents!

Now that’s just hockey-wise folks. Think a bit further, as will Marc Bergevin. Subban makes $9 million a season. Drew Doughty in Los Angeles makes $11 million. Karlsson is on record saying that he won’t accept anything less than fair market value. Based on that, isn’t it fair to say that he will request between $11.5-12 million per season? Is the gamble of him returning to form worth taking that chance, with a bullet-proof No-Movement Clause protecting him against expansion draft or trades? As a fan with crystal balls, who cares, right? As hockey management, in the real world of the NHL with a salary cap, rest assured that it does matter a whole lot.

Karlsson’s next contract

Again, no scoop or particular science here folks, certainly not pretending to be “in the know” but simply looking at logic. Up until recently, Subban was the highest paid defenseman with a cap hit of $9 million. That was before the L.A. Kings signed Drew Doughty to a $11 million cap hit. Karlsson himself stating that he wants fair market value would bring him to, at the very least, in $11.5-12 million range. Now that’s a whole lot of money to tie into a player period, but especially one coming off not one, but two serious lower body injuries impeding his greatest strength: skating.

Conclusion

If I’m Marc Bergevin, I go hard at Duchene and I consider lowballing Karlsson. Preferably, there are a couple of good options for left-handed defensemen rumoured to be on the market: Nick Leddy and TJ Brodie (yes, Brodie is a LD even if he played RD due to the Flames’ overload of LD). Duchene up the middle, Domi moving to left wing, sacrifice one of Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron or Andrew Shaw to get one of Leddy or Brodie and you have a better team without jeopardizing the Canadiens’ entire future cap into a very questionable player in Karlsson. Go Habs Go!