It’s the white whale of summer scenarios. Agents of chaos the hockey world over drool at the possibility, and dream of the fall out, just one offer sheet could have on the future impact of how business is conducted in the NHL.
But it’s been six years since the last offer sheet was signed, when Ryan O’Reilly was inked by the Calgary Flames in a lockout-shortened 2013 season. The Colorado Avalanche matched that one and later traded him to Buffalo because they felt his contract trajectory priced him out of being a fit within their cap structure.
You have to go all the way back to 2007 to find the last time an offer sheet wasn’t matched by the team whose player was offered on. That was when Dustin Penner, then of the Anaheim Ducks, signed a five-year, $21.25-million offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers, leading to the infamous Brian Burke-Kevin Lowe barn fight proposition. The Ducks got a first-, second- and third-round pick as compensation.
It’s not that offer sheets don’t ever get handed out. Shea Weber, David Backes, Steve Bernier and Niklas Hjalmarsson all signed them between Penner’s and O’Reilly’s. It’s just that in recent years we’ve had the possibility for the likes of Steven Stamkos or Vladimir Tarasenko or even William Nylander through his contract impasse to sign them, and it hasn’t happened. It’s a tease at this point, but again there are rumblings that this summer could be different.
On the Jan. 21 edition of the 31 Thoughts Podcast, Arizona Coyotes GM John Chayka was asked if this would be the summer of the offer sheet.
“I think it’s certainly possible. I know there’s lots of discussion out there,” he said. “I think our situation is unique and we’re not adverse to using an offer sheet that’s for sure. Just with the crop of free agents, it really is amazing how much of the cash spent is being shifted towards young players and is that going to create an instance where there is an offer sheet? I think it’s certainly possible. Whether or not it’s us, there’s a lot to be played out before that occurs so I can’t tell you for sure if it’s us or not.”
The landscape is a little clearer today. Aside from Auston Matthews, who signed a five-year deal in February, all the best RFAs are still unsigned, including Patrik Laine, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Charlie McAvoy, Mikko Rantanen, Kyle Connor and Matthew Tkachuk. With less than a month until all of these players can start talking to other teams, and just 32 more days until they can sign with one of them, there are a lot of offer sheet possibilities out there.
All it took was one big UFA, John Tavares, to leave the team that drafted him in the prime of his career for everyone to wonder if more players would at least consider that route less travelled. Now, all it takes is one of these RFAs to do the deed and sign on the dotted line of an offer sheet for this market to possibly change for good as well.
“(Offer sheets) haven’t been in play a lot recently, but there’s been a lot of talk, and a lot of people thinking this is the year it’s going to happen,” Tkachuk said in the wake of Matthews’ signing. “You can’t predict that stuff, but you never know. Maybe.”
So how exactly do these things work and which players (high-end or not) could sign an offer sheet this summer? Here’s a quick primer of what to look for.
How offer sheets work
For an RFA to be eligible to receive an offer sheet they either have to a) receive a qualifying offer, but not sign it or b) not be going to arbitration. Any player who does not receive a qualifying offer will become a UFA (like Robin Lehner last summer) and any player who elects for arbitration has to go through that process with their team in July or August. After that, if the team chooses to walk away from the arbiter’s decision, the player will become a UFA.
Of course a player could receive any number of offer sheets, but none of it becomes binding until one is signed. Once the signature is down, though, it’s considered a new contract for the player. At that point, the player’s former team has seven days to either match the offer, or walk away with the compensation.
How much compensation a team gets in return for a player left unmatched on an offer sheet is determined by what the Average Annual Value of that contract is. Each year the compensation scale adjusts based on the average contract value in the league. This is what the scale looks like for the summer of 2019:
The thing is, you must use your own draft picks for the compensation. So, if you’ve traded away your own first-round pick, but have another team’s instead, you cannot sign a player to an offer sheet that requires 2020 first-round compensation until you re-acquire your own selection.
But even though there are some teams who have dealt away their first-rounder for 2020, every club can theoretically still sign someone to an offer sheet that requires two or more first-rounders coming back. The CBA explains the parameters for which years compensatory picks must be available:
• Clubs owing one (1) draft selection must have it available in the next draft
• Clubs owing two (2) draft selections in different rounds must have them available in the next draft
• Clubs owing three (3) draft selections in different rounds must have them available in the next draft
• Clubs owing two (2) draft selections in the same round, must have them available in the next three (3) drafts
• Clubs owing three (3) draft selections in the same round must have them available in the next four (4) drafts, and so on.
• When a Club owes two (2) or more draft selections in the same round, the signing Club does not elect the years in which such selections shall be awarded to the Prior Club; rather, the selections next available will be transferred to the Prior Club (i.e., a Club that owes two (2) selections has them available in the next two (2) drafts – that is when they are transferred).
Who are the candidates to sign an offer sheet?
The depth and skill in this year’s RFA class is driving the idea that this summer is fertile ground for offer sheets. But for a team to not match an offer sheet on the best players available, someone probably has to offer an exorbitant amount of money over the player’s market worth that risks hindering them in the future. Simply offering the expected rate to a player is likely an easy match for their current team.
Still, the Marner’s and Point’s of the world are susceptible to these, and we’ll all wonder if they’ll be offer sheet targets until they sign.
But where a team might be able to try and steal a player without offering an amount that would singlehandedly lead to a cap crunch, or demand expensive compensation, is in that secondary or tertiary market. Teams with plenty of cap space could target those types of RFAs on a capped out team that’s maybe hoping to keep an AAV low on a short-term deal. In those circumstances, the required return if the offer sheet is unmatched could be as low as a second-round pick.
So rather than focus on only the big guns, we have to keep in mind there are tiers of players who could get offer sheeted. Here are some candidates from three different skill groups.
Mitch Marner: Everyone in Toronto is wondering what will happen here. Will Marner wait until the free agent negotiating period in late-June, and then July 1, to see what his market is? And then, will someone make him the highest-paid winger in the game, eclipsing Patrick Kane’s $10.5 million AAV? How high does that need to go before GM Kyle Dubas chooses to take the picks rather than match?
Matthew Tkachuk: In a class that includes Laine coming off a down season we’re not saying Tkachuk is the best goal-scoring winger on the market, but his 34 goals did tie Connor for the most among RFAs at the position this season. Tkachuk improved by 28 points, plays with an edge that translates well into the playoffs, and is future captain material. All that makes it unlikely the Flames wouldn’t match an offer sheet. They have $14.4 million in space already and seem motivated to part with Michael Frolik ($4.3 million). Still, other teams could make it hard on the Flames by setting Tkachuk’s value.
Kyle Connor: The Jets have $25.3 million in projected cap space, but have both Laine and Connor to sign as high-end RFAs. Plus, they need to figure out what to do with RFA Jacob Trouba (trade him or not), while Dustin Byfuglien and Tucker Poolman are the only blueliners signed beyond next season. The cap crunch is here, and if Laine brings a heavy cost even on a short-term deal, some opportunistic team could put the squeeze on GM Kevin Cheveldayoff by throwing another expensive contract at Connor, who has 64 goals over the past two seasons.
Brayden Point: We have to address Point, who is most likely to re-sign in Tampa for a price in line with the rest of the team’s cap structure. The strength of that lineup and the tax implications make that the expected outcome here, but he’s also the best goal scorer available in this RFA class (41 this season) and he’s a centre, which comes with built-in higher value. Nikita Kucherov will be Tampa Bay’s highest-paid player next season at $9.5 million and it’s hard to imagine Point getting more from the Lightning than the Art Ross winner. Steven Stamkos, another centre, comes in at $8.5 million. Point likely falls somewhere in that range, but how many centre-hungry teams out there think Point would vastly improve their fortunes? We talk about the possibility Marner gets $11 million-plus on an offer sheet, but there’s far more reason to believe Point would fit that scenario.
Timo Meier: The Sharks have $24 million in cap space and we’d presume they’ll re-sign Joe Pavelski. If they manage to also keep Erik Karlsson, that space tightens much more and would make Meier an interesting offer sheet candidate. He is the leader of the next group of Sharks who will be leaned on to keep their long stretch of success going. Meier’s coming off his first 30-goal campaign and was the ninth overall draft pick in 2015 after a couple of big scoring seasons in the QMJHL. He’ll likely make more on his next deal than Vrana, but not as much as the Tier I players. However, if there’s a GM out there who believes Meier will eventually join that class of upper-echelon goal scorers, now would be the time to offer a long-term deal for $6.3 million. Heck, go a little higher to make the compensation a first, second and a third, which San Jose would probably match. If the Sharks did match, though, it would tighten the screws on their cap outlook a little more.
Jakub Vrana: The 23-year-old took a nice step forward this season, finishing with 24 goals and 47 points, but he didn’t get on the board at all in the post-season. He will be a key figure for the Caps heading forward, as Washington will need younger players like him to start taking up more important roles in the offence. GM Brian MacLellan’s team has $10 million in cap room and Vrana is easily the most important expiring contract to extend, but things start to get interesting a year from now. Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom are UFA eligible next July, followed by Alex Ovechkin in 2021. We’d expect all of them to stay, but at what combined cost? EvolvingWild has Vrana at $4.3 million on a five-year contract, but if a team comes in and offers a little more than that, it may start to become an issue for the Caps. At that point, though, the compensation would be a first and a third.
Kasperi Kapanen: Whether the Leafs have to deal with a Marner offer sheet or not, they only have $8.7 million in projected cap space to start with, plus another $5.3 million when Nathan Horton goes on long-term injured reserve. EvolvingWild’s model has Kapanen slotted in at $2.26 million on a two-year deal, which would be manageable for Dubas. He could even go a little higher. But could a big believer swoop in and offer the soon-to-be 23-year-old a longer-term contract for, say, $4.2 million? The compensation would still only be a second-round pick, but may become too rich for a Toronto team that also has to take care of arbitration-eligible RFA Andreas Johnsson, plus upgrade its defence. Toronto has no shortage of cheap, young wingers in the system that could possibly slot into the bottom-six, so an offer like this could pry Kapanen away.