Down Goes Brown: How to fix NHL’s broken offer sheet system

Evgeny Kuznetsov returns in a big way, T.J. Oshie does the dirty work, the Capitals power play is absolutely lethal and Marc-Andre Fleury makes a pair of big stops.

We’re closing in on the July 1 opening of the NHL free agent market, and while much of the attention is focused on big-name UFAs like John Tavares, Ilya Kovalchuk and John Carlson, there’s also the usual batch of excellent young players hitting RFA status. And that means it’s time for our annual round of “Will this be the year that somebody signs an offer sheet?”

We already know the answer. No, it probably won’t.

It should be. There are plenty of players who could be eligible that any team would love to add, including names like William Karlsson, Mark Stone, Jacob Trouba and William Nylander. In a league in which players (especially forwards) hit their prime in their early 20s, offer sheets remain one of the only ways to acquire a young star who can instantly slot into the top of your lineup. For most teams, short of winning the draft lottery in a year with a sure-thing franchise player or two available, it’s just about the only way.

And yet we never see them. The NHL hasn’t had an offer sheet signed in over five years, going back to Ryan O’Reilly’s two-year deal with the Flames back in 2013. There have been only eight in the salary cap era, five of which had already come by 2008. And only three cap-era offer sheets have been signed by players who could be considered stars at the time – O’Reilly, Shea Weber in 2012 and Thomas Vanek in 2007.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of impact players in the RFA pool for teams to target. In 2015, a GM could have made a play for Vladimir Tarasenko. In 2016, there was a chance to sign Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Johnny Gaudreau or Nikita Kucherov. Last year, the target could have been David Pastrnak, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Leon Draisaitl. These are franchise-altering players, many just entering their most productive years, all of them available to any team that was willing to extend an offer. And yet, nothing.

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From a distance, none of this makes any sense. Every GM in the league has a tool in their toolbox that can be used to acquire a superstar in his prime, and virtually none of them ever bother to use it.

When hockey fans complain about the lack of offer sheets, they often settle on one culprit: the GMs. If they actually put winning first, the thinking goes, we’d see offer sheets every year. But if their priority was to stay chummy with their colleagues, and to make sure their status in the hockey management old boys club remained in good standing, then they’d think twice. Wouldn’t want to get uninvited from a round of golf at the next GM meetings.

There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s a bigger issue: offer sheets are broken.

Put differently, the problem here isn’t just the 31 men who don’t seem to want to use the system. It’s the system itself. Given the way the rules are currently set up, a lot of the GMs who keep passing on superstar talent are actually acting rationally.

(We’ll pause here to acknowledge that from the NHL’s perspective, the system might not be “broken” at all. Maybe the league and it’s GMs don’t want any offer sheets signed, because the lack of them means that young superstars sign ridiculously undervalued contracts. But we’re coming at this from a fan’s perspective, not Gary Bettman’s or a typical NHL GM’s. So, we’ll stick with broken.)

Here’s where the problem kicks in. When an RFA signs an offer sheet, his old team has a week to match. If they do, they keep him under the terms of the offer sheet. If they don’t, he becomes property of the new team, which has to compensate the old one with draft picks. Those picks are determined by the annual value of the contract, and they range from nothing at all for deals under $1,339,575 to four first-round picks for deals over $10,148,303. You can find a full breakdown of all the compensation levels here.

When you review those levels of pick compensation, something becomes clear: they’re too cheap. Sure, four first-round picks seems like a heavy price to pay. But for a player who was already worth over $10-million by his early-20s – we’re talking the Connor McDavid level here – it would be a bargain. Same with the next most expensive level, which ranges from $8,118,642 to $10,148,302 and costs a team two firsts, a second and a third. Again, that’s not nothing. But would want to your favourite team to give up a package of those picks to land someone like Kucherov, MacKinnon or Scheifele? In a heartbeat.

On the surface, this seems like a reason to flood the market with offer sheets. If something is priced too cheaply, you want as much of it as possible, right? But the bargain compensation levels actually work against any team looking to poach a player, because they virtually guarantee that the offer will be matched. If a team is facing an offer sheet on one of its best young players and has to weigh the value of accepting the draft picks instead, there’s basically no choice to be had. You match and figure out the cap headaches later.

There are other problems with the draft pick system. For one, it heavily favours the league’s better teams. First-round draft picks from the Predators or the Lightning aren’t anywhere near as costly as firsts from the Sabres or Coyotes. In a league that typically prefers to offer a hand up to struggling teams, that seems backwards. And teams must use their own original picks as compensations, meaning those that have been active traders have often inadvertently dealt themselves out of the offer sheet game before it even begins. For example, the Evander Kane trade means the Sharks can’t offer sheet anyone to a deal higher than $4 million this summer, because they don’t have their own first-round pick. They’re punished for the sin of aggressively trying to improve their roster.

But the main problem is that the compensation is just too cheap. Put yourself in the shoes of a GM who may be considering an offer sheet on someone like Nylander at something like a $7.5-million annual range. The charts says that would cost you a first, second and third. That’s not a fair trade, so the Maple Leafs will match that, every time. It wouldn’t even be a hard decision.

So, what have you gained? You’ve forced an opponent to pay a higher salary than they’d like to keep a player, which could upset their cap situation and cause other players on the roster to shake loose. There is value in that. But that value gets spread across every other team in the league. Meanwhile, you see your cap space and picks temporarily tied up while the team you targeted takes their time announcing their decision, plus the small but non-zero risk of bad blood and even future retaliation. Your offer sheet gets matched, the benefits are shared by everyone, while the costs are paid by you alone. It’s a bad deal for you all around. Better not to bother.

That equation changes if there’s at least some possibility that a team won’t match. Maybe the Senators’ notorious internal budget means there’s a slim chance that an aggressive Mark Stone offer sheet would be worth trying. But it’s unlikely. Offer sheets are almost never worth it, because the compensation system is broken.

But here’s the good news: we can fix this.

One way would be to simply increase the compensation levels, so that teams would have to at least think about accepting the picks. That’s the easy answer. But there’s another way that would be far better, because it would be far more fun. And we already know how to do it, because it’s the way the system used to work.

It’s time to go back to player-for-player compensation. That’s right – the old forced trade system, like we had in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Here’s how it works. When a team signs an RFA to an offer sheet and his team declines to match, there’s no draft pick chart to consult. Instead, each team comes up with a trade proposal that they think would be fair compensation for the signed player. Those trades could be one-for-one or involve multiple players. Each team submits their proposal to an NHL arbitrator, who picks the one that he thinks comes closest to equal value. He can’t split the difference or come up with an alternate deal. He picks one or the other.

If that sounds like it would cause chaos, well, yeah. That’s part of the point. Chaos is fun. Going back to player-for-player compensation would basically turn the RFA process into a high stakes game of chicken. If you’re signing a player, how much do you offer in return to maximize your value while still having a chance of winning the arbitration case? If you’re the team losing the player, do you stay realistic or get aggressive and see if you can actually win the swap outright? Do you feel lucky?

Back when the RFA system worked this way, it led to deals like Troy Mallette for Adam Graves, or Peter Zezel and Grant Marshall for Mike Craig, as well as rejected proposals like the Devils trying to steal Bob Probert away from the Red Wings. But by far the biggest forced swap came in 1991, when the Blues signed 22-year-old winger Brendan Shanahan. They offered two good young prospects in Curtis Joseph and Rod Brind’Amour – not bad at all, considering both guys went on to become borderline Hall-of-Fame candidates. But the Devils decided to swing for the fences and asked for Scott Stevens instead. The arbitrator sided with New Jersey, Stevens became a Devil, and the course of the next decade or so of NHL history had changed.

Imagine that kind of scenario playing out today. If you’re a fan, the drama would be hard to resist. The player-for-player system has the dual advantage of simultaneously juicing both the offer sheet and trading markets, both of which are fun and, these days, practically comatose. And NHL off-seasons might just go from featuring a whole lot of speculation and not much action to something very different altogether.

It would be great. Will it ever happen? There’s virtually no chance.

For one, as we’ve already mentioned, the NHL probably likes the current system just fine. GMs don’t want other teams to be able to prey on their key players. In their minds, boring works. Some fans might even feel the same way; big-name roster moves are fun from the outside, but if it’s your favourite player heading to a new team you might prefer the status quo. Ask any 1990s Blues fan what they think of Stevens-for-Shanahan and get ready to hear some f-bombs.

For players, the new system would represent a mixed bag. An invigorated RFA market would mean more money in the pocket of young stars, and maybe even a wider reset to how players in their prime are valued. But under the current cap system, that extra money would just be redistributed from other players. And most players don’t like being uprooted and sent to a new team against their will (Stevens initially refused to report to New Jersey). Presumably, no-trade and no-movement clauses would have to figure into this somehow as well.

But the biggest obstacle is that this would be a fairly radical change, and the NHL doesn’t like to do those. It takes a lot to get this league to move off of the status quo, and arguments like “this would make things more fun for your paying customers” never seem to hold much weight.

So sure, it’s probably a pipe dream. Instead, we can look forward to another summer of rampant offer sheet speculation that doesn’t result in anything actually happening. And then another, and another after that.

But just remember: the solution is out there, and it’s not all that complicated. All we’d have to do is go back to the way things used to be.

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