Five potential offer sheet targets on the secondary RFA market

HC analyst Brian Burke weighs in on latest surrounding the Maple Leafs contract battle with Mitch Marner, including him turning down a significant 8-year offer from the club and why he thinks Marner's camp is handling it the right way so far.

Will this really be the year of the offer sheet, or will all that hype dissipate this week and next as RFAs start to re-sign with their current teams?

With the RFA negotiating period coming up and starting Wednesday, none of the very biggest names have officially signed yet. Mitch Marner has reportedly been given a big offer from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but will entertain talks with other teams. Mikko Rantanen, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point, Sebastian Aho, Matthew Tkachuk — all of them are difference-makers who could pull in massive new contracts. Ryan O’Reilly was the last player to sign an offer sheet all the way back in 2013, so if any of these big tickets decide to put pressure on their current teams by going that route, it could change the game for the rest of this class, or at least next year’s group.

Since the salary cap isn’t rising as high as previously thought, settling at $81.5 million for 2019-20, teams that already figured to be up against it are feeling even more of a pinch. And while it may not be tenable for some organizations to get into the big fish RFA game and give up four-first round picks, they could instead look to get into the secondary market and put the screws to their opponents by offer sheeting a lesser RFA. The compensation would be far more digestable and worth it, and the cap cost wouldn’t be as exorbitant.

So who are these players? First, we’ve only focused on teams that are dealing with their own kind of cap crunch and thus could be legitimate targets. Then, we identified some players other teams may be interested in acquiring and giving up a couple of picks to do it. None of these players will break the bank, but given the compensation for the very best RFAs is so staggering, this is the market a shrewd GM could try and take advantage of.

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Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks

If there’s any GM who we’d expect fully capable of steering his way out of a sticky situation, Doug Wilson is it. But with just $14.8 million in projected cap space and only seven forwards signed, it’ll be an uphill battle. Captain Joe Pavelski hasn’t signed and is now believed to be meeting with other teams. Joe Thornton wants to come back, though his new cap hit cost shouldn’t be prohibitive. Meantime, San Jose has more committed to its defence than any other NHL team and still needs to address its goaltending issue.

Meier was the ninth overall pick of the 2015 draft and just had his breakout season, finishing with 30 goals and 66 points in 78 games. EvolvingWild’s contract predictions has Meier coming in at a $5.7 million cap hit on a six-year deal, but if you believe he’ll at least stick at that production — and really, there is no reason not to — would a team swoop in and offer between $6.5-$7 million? That would push the compensation to a first-, second- and third-round pick and would be enough to make things uncomfortable for the Sharks.

Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks

Along the same lines as Meier, Labanc perhaps doesn’t have the same offensive ceiling, but he stepped up with a career-best 17-goal, 56-point season and will turn just 24 years old midway through next year. He’s more of a playmaker where Meier is the goal scorer. You probably wouldn’t go as high with Labanc on an offer sheet, but as the Sharks deal with their bigger fish, giving Labanc $4 million would only demand a second-round pick as compensation — going to $4.3 million moves it to first- and third-round picks. If we’re looking for players who rival teams could pick on to squeeze the Sharks, Labanc is a decent target.

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Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames

It’s fair to say the Flames would prefer to keep Bennett, who although will likely never live up to the expectations of a fourth-overall pick, has settled in as a pain-in-the-butt third line grinder. Calgary loves those players and Bennett plays a valued role for them, but he’s not the top priority this summer. The goaltending needs to be resolved. Matthew Tkachuk’s next AAV needs to be settled. Maybe there’s still a trade to be had for TJ Brodie or Travis Hamonic.

The Flames have $12.9 million in cap space before figuring all that out and Tkachuk will eat up most of it. EvolvingWild has projected Bennett at $2.79 million on a three-year deal, which would demand just a second-round pick of compensation. You’d have to go all the way up to a $4.2 million AAV before the compensation rises so there’s plenty of room to settle on a price. How much is a 23-year-old third-line winger worth to a team that needs one? And how much is he worth to the Flames before they’d let him walk?

Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals

The 13th overall pick in 2014, Vrana isn’t among the high-end RFAs this summer, but tops the list of important off-season contracts as far as the Capitals are concerned. With their ageing core, it’ll be key over these next few years to have younger talent pushing its way up the depth chart and so far Vrana has been leading that brigade, finishing with 24 goals and 47 points.

Washington has $9.2 million in cap space with nine forwards signed and a decision on whether or not to qualify Andre Burakovsky after another disappointing season. If you’re going to offer sheet Vrana and make things uncomfortable for Washington, you’ll have to find a team willing to bet on his future production.

EvolvingWild has Vrana at $3.1 million on a two-year bridge — would someone offer perhaps $5 million or more on a long-term deal to bump the compensation up to a first and a third? The Capitals could still prioritize Vrana and likely fit that under their cap for 2019-20, but with Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom both one year away from free agency, an inflated cost to Vrana this summer means bigger issues next off-season if the cap remains stagnant.

Andrew Copp, Winnipeg Jets

One of Winnipeg’s most trusted penalty killers, Copp is a strong defensive player who would be a nice addition to most bottom-six units in the league. He’s turning 25 years old next month and is generally a 10-goal, 30ish-point player which doesn’t jump off the page, but is a pretty good level for a fourth-liner. The beauty about this potential offer sheet is that you may not have to come in above market value to get it done. The Jets have $23.8 million in cap space, but far more important decisions to make on players higher up the depth chart. EvolvingWild has Copp in at a $2.1 million AAV on a two-year deal, which would both double his prior AAV and demand only a second-round pick as compensation.

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