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!

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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!