Exclusive: Flames fortunate Avs matched

Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster has a lot of tough decisions ahead. (CP Photo)

Jay Feaster might consider sending Greg Sherman a thank-you note. Or perhaps a fine bottle of wine.

The general manager of the Colorado Avalanche appears to have inadvertently done the Calgary Flames a big favour by choosing to match the offer sheet signed by 22-year-old centre Ryan O’Reilly on Thursday.

In a bizarre twist to an already unusual story, Sportsnet.ca has discovered that the Flames were not only in danger of losing 2013 first- and third-round draft picks as compensation if the Avs hadn’t matched the O’Reilly contract, but they also would likely have had to surrender the player before ever getting him in uniform.

That’s because O’Reilly would have needed to clear waivers before joining the team’s roster.

The unsigned forward spent part of the NHL lockout playing with his brother, Cal, for Magnitogorsk in Russia. According to Metallurg coach Paul Maurice and KHL spokesman Shawn McBride, he appeared in games on Jan. 21 and Jan. 23 – both after the shortened NHL schedule was back underway – which meant that waivers were required before O’Reilly could return to the NHL as a free agent midway through the season.

The origin of the rule goes back to Finnish defenceman Reijo Ruotsalainen, who frequently bounced between Europe and the NHL in the 1980s, once joining the Edmonton Oilers just in time to win the Stanley Cup.

More recently, Evgeni Nabokov, Kyle Wellwood and Marek Svatos have all signed with NHL teams upon returning to North America and then found themselves suiting up elsewhere after being immediately picked off the waiver wire.

The most interesting part of O’Reilly’s case is that the NHL didn’t believe he had played in Russia after the start of its season, according to a source. That detail had apparently slipped through the cracks – understandable given all of the work being done to get the league up and running after the lockout.

However, it could have ended up being an awfully important detail to overlook.

Feaster’s decision to pursue O’Reilly with a rarely used offer sheet was also understandable. It was clear that contract talks were at a stalemate between the well-regarded centre and Avs organization and Sherman set a steep price for anyone looking to acquire the player’s rights in a trade.

Sensing that other teams might also be ready to swoop in with a contract offer, the Flames GM pounced.

“It’s not often you get a chance to get a franchise player,” Feaster told Sportsnet’s Roger Millions during Thursday’s Flames-Avalanche game in Denver.

The sides agreed to a creative deal which guarantees that O’Reilly will receive $9.3 million in salary by the end of next season, not to mention the $6.5 million he’ll likely receive the year after that in the form of a qualifying offer.

It was exactly the kind of windfall that O’Reilly had been seeking, and it was much more money than the Avalanche wanted to pay.

The team had been looking to get its leading scorer to agree to the same $7-million, two-year deal signed by teammate Matt Duchene over the summer, but O’Reilly refused to budge and his patience paid off. The Avalanche only let a couple of hours pass before announcing that they would match the offer sheet from Calgary.

“Sometimes the process takes a little longer than you would expect or would want, but that’s ultimately where we’ve ended up today – he’s staying with the Colorado Avalanche,” Sherman told reporters.

That decision wasn’t much of a surprise given that just three of the last 15 NHL offer sheets have been accepted dating back to 1995. It’s simply not proven to be an effective way for teams to acquire players.

Because O’Reilly spent the last three years in Colorado, he’s not viewed as a free agent who is joining a NHL team from Europe midway through the season. As a result, he does not need to clear waivers before suiting up for the Avs again.

The circumstances would have been much different if Calgary’s offer sheet was accepted.

That would have created a potentially disastrous situation where the Flames had to send two decent draft picks to Colorado before losing the rights to O’Reilly immediately afterwards. Hypothetically, it could even have been the Avalanche that ended up putting in a waiver claim on the player, assuming that they dropped back below Calgary in the standings by the time he hit the wire at the end of next week.

Fortunately for the Flames, that nightmare scenario won’t come to pass. They were spared from it by Sherman’s quick decision to match the offer sheet.

On Thursday night, Feaster likened the experience of visiting Pepsi Center after trying to lure away one of Colorado’s top players to walking into the “lion’s den.”

“We decided to go ahead and be bold and daring today,” he said.

It could have been much more costly than it looked at first blush.

UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster released the following statement Friday afternoon:

“Prior to tendering the offer sheet for Ryan O’Reilly we, as a hockey operations department, examined whether there were any impediments to our successfully securing the services of the player including, but not limited to, his having played in the KHL after the start of the current NHL season.

Our interpretation of the Article 13 transition rules governing restricted free agents (“RFA”), and the applicability of Article 13.23 under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to such RFA’s was, and continues to be, different than the NHL’s current interpretation as articulated to us this morning. Moreover, throughout our discussions, the player’s representative shared our interpretation and position with respect to the non-applicability of Article 13.23.

While we were prepared to advance our position with the NHL, in light of Colorado’s having matched the offer sheet it is now an academic point. As such, we will have no further comment on the matter, the player, or the offer sheet process.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.