How NHL offer sheets work and six players who could get one

Toronto Maple Leafs centre William Nylander (29) celebrates his goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

In early May on the 31 Thoughts Podcast, GM-turned-executive-turned TV analyst Brian Burke recalled the time he challenged then-Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe to a barn fight.

That rivalry, which Burke said has since been smoothed over, was spurred by an offer sheet Anaheim Ducks forward Dustin Penner signed with the Oilers. Burke was GM of the Ducks at the time and decided not to match, so Anaheim picked up first-, second- and third-round picks from Edmonton.

“I like Kevin Lowe and I respect Kevin Lowe,” Burke said. “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.”

The RFA offer sheet is a weapon in any GM’s arsenal, but it’s generally frowned upon in the community and not used very often. To make a decision uncomfortable for a competing GM, an offer sheet usually has to come in above market value, which can result in an inflated market for at least the near-future. This, in turn, can impact every other team and GM when they go to re-sign comparable RFAs of their own.

But when offer sheets are handed out, boy can they be fun.

The last time it happened was in 2013 when the Calgary Flames signed Ryan O’Reilly for two years and $10 million. The Avalanche matched it and later traded O’Reilly to the Sabres because they thought his next contract would put them in a salary cap bind. David Backes, Steve Bernier, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Shea Weber all signed offer sheets between O’Reilly and Penner, but the Anaheim-Edmonton episode in 2007 is the last time a team didn’t match the contract.

With the salary cap going up to $79.5 million, could the offer sheet come into play once more? Given the history of its usage this is probably unlikely, but with young, impact players more important than ever in the NHL, it is a route more GMs should be considering to accelerate their plans.

Here, then, is an explainer of how offer sheets work along with some candidates to receive one this summer.

How NHL offer sheets work

Basically, if you’re an RFA who has received a qualifying offer (but hasn’t signed it), or an RFA who doesn’t elect to go to arbitration, you can get an offer sheet. Teams must submit qualifying offers to their RFAs to keep their rights and if a player doesn’t receive one of these he’ll become a UFA — that deadline passed last Monday. And if the player signs his qualifying offer, it then becomes a one-year contract, thus taking him off the offer sheet market.

The trick with offer sheets is that if a player signs one with an opposing team, there are still more hurdles to get over before they acquire him.

First, the team that owns a player’s rights has seven days to decide whether or not to match. If they do choose to match, the player stays put and his new contract is the same as the terms of the offer sheet.

If a team elects to not match an offer sheet, the signing team will then acquire the player but have to pay draft-pick compensation that is relative to the new contract’s average annual value (AAV).

The compensation scale is readjusted each year based on the average league salary. This year’s scale is as follows, according to Elliotte Friedman via 31 Thoughts.

Offer Sheet (AAV) Compensation
$1,339,575 or below None
Over $1,339,575 to $2,029,59 3rd
Over $2,029,59 to $4,059,322 2nd
Over $4,059,322 to $6,088,980 1st, 3rd
Over $6,088,980 to $8,118,641 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $8,118,641 to $10,148,302 (2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $10,148,302 (4) 1st
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For a team to submit an offer sheet, it must have all the draft picks in that year to cover the compensation cost — and the picks have to be their own, not ones acquired from another team. A team may also submit two offer sheets at the same time only if it has enough draft picks to cover the compensation of both offers separately.

If the compensation demands multiple picks from the same round, the signing team must have the pick in the upcoming draft, and then any additional picks covered in the subsequent years. For instance, if compensation is two first-round picks, the signing team must have its own first-rounder in 2019 and 2020 (since the signing period began July 1, after this year’s draft).

What’s the biggest NHL offer sheet ever signed?

In terms of money, the costliest offer sheet of all-time is the one Shea Weber signed with Philadelphia in July 2012 while he was still a member of the Nashville Predators. The contract came in before term limits were introduced, so he signed on for 14 years and $110 million — a $7,857,143 AAV. The Predators matched and, of course, dealt him to Montreal for P.K. Subban four years later. Weber’s contract continues through the 2025-26 season.

In terms of the most expensive single-season payout due to an offer sheet, that distinction goes to Sergei Fedorov. In February of 1998, after a long, drawn-out contract battle with Detroit, Fedorov signed a six-year, $38-million offer sheet with Carolina, who front-loaded it in such a way to deter Detroit from matching. First off, Fedorov was to receive a signing bonus of $14 million that the Wings would pay if they matched, and further, Fedorov would receive a $12-million bonus if his team made the conference final — a far greater likelihood for the powerful Red Wings than a Hurricanes team in its inaugural season.

Detroit matched and went on to win the Stanley Cup, so Fedorov earned roughly $28 million for around four months of work.

When it comes to compensation, the costliest offer sheet was the one St. Louis signed with then-Washington defenceman Scott Stevens in July 1990. The offer was for $5.1 million over four years, which, at the time, made Stevens the highest-paid blueliner in the league. The compensation demanded five first-round picks in return.

In a twist, Stevens ended up playing just one season for the Blues. The following summer, St. Louis doled out another offer sheet, this time to New Jersey forward Brendan Shanahan. Since St. Louis didn’t have the draft picks to cover compensation (the rules weren’t so defined at the time), the two teams tried to work out a deal. The Blues are said to have offered up Rod Brind’Amour, Curtis Joseph and two draft picks, which New Jersey denied so the teams went to arbitration. In the end, New Jersey was given Stevens as compensation for Shanahan.

Three years later in 1994, the Blues signed Stevens to another offer sheet, which New Jersey matched. So, no player has been involved in offer sheets more often in their history than Stevens. And no team has signed more offer sheets than the Blues, who have done it nine times, the last of which was Bernier in 2008.

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Who are the top candidates to receive an offer sheet this summer?

There are a number of RFAs who are eligible for offer sheets this summer, and the UFA fallout on July 1 opens up even more intriguing possibilities.

Here are some of the top RFAs who could be available to offer-sheet bidders this summer:

Mark Stone, Ottawa

One of the better two-way players in the game and generally underrated, the 25-year-old hit the 20-goal mark for the fourth-straight season and had the best points-per-game average of his career with 62 points in just 58 games for the Senators this season. Ottawa has its own internal salary cap and a contract for Erik Karlsson to worry about — a team could make both decisions much more difficult with an offer sheet.

Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg

Once upon a time, Trouba asked to be traded out of Winnipeg, a request that was later rescinded. The 24-year-old signed a two-year bridge contract in November 2016 and is the second most-used defenceman on Winnipeg’s blue line, averaging just shy of 22 minutes a night. Only Josh Morrissey started his shifts in the defensive zone more often among Jets defenders, and only Dmitry Kulikov got fewer offensive zone starts than Trouba. Making any decision tough on the Jets is the looming cap crunch that’s a year away. On top of having to sign Trouba, Winnipeg also has to shell out for Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck this off-season, and then deal with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor as RFAs a year from now, while also facing the chance of Blake Wheeler becoming a UFA.

Mathew Dumba, Minnesota

In his fourth full NHL season, Dumba earned more and more ice time as the year went on and finished with a career-high average of 23:49 per game. When Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter went down to injury, Dumba was the next defenceman up that the Wild leaned on. Last year, Dumba got the fewest defensive zone starts among Wild defenders, but became the most used in those situations in 2017-18. And yet, he managed a career-high 50 points — improving by 16 over 2016-17.

William Karlsson, Vegas

Given the 25-year-old more than doubled his goal output from his first 183 NHL games just this past season on close to 25 per cent shooting, Karlsson’s may be one of the more difficult contracts to gauge this summer. Is he a future 40-goal man? Is he closer to the 10-goal output he delivered in the two seasons prior to arriving in Vegas? Is he somewhere in between? Is this the player worth throwing money at in an offer sheet?

Dylan Larkin, Detroit

The 21-year-old still hasn’t matched the 23 goals he produced as a rookie, but this past season Larkin set a new career high in points with 63 in 82 games. One of the fastest skaters in the game today, it still feels like Larkin’s most productive NHL days are ahead.

William Nylander, Toronto

A winger up to this point in his career, Nylander could potentially end up as a centre in Toronto … or somewhere else. The 22-year-old has matching 61-point totals the past two seasons and it seems the best is still to come. A team could look at Toronto’s situation and think long and hard about weaponizing an offer sheet by betting on the 22-year-old’s future. Toronto dedicated $11 million in cap space to John Tavares for the next seven years and has to think about big contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner kicking in a year from now.

WHICH TEAMS COULD USE THE OFFER SHEET THIS SUMMER?

There are a number of teams with the cap space to make something happen if they so choose. Here’s a look at some contenders:

New York Islanders: Having just lost John Tavares, there is a ton of money sitting there to use and GM Lou Lamoriello might not be OK to sit back and wait for a long-term rebuild. The salary floor is now $58.8 million, which New York is approximately underneath by $6.6 million at the moment. There is still a fair collection of youth here, with Calder winner Mat Barzal, Kieffer Bellows, and the two first-round draft picks they made this year. If Lamoriello targets a player in his early-20s for an offer sheet, it can maybe help get this thing back on track.

New Jersey Devils: They have $23.7 million in cap space with no major RFAs still to sign, so after a successful push to the playoffs and an MVP in their midst maybe New Jersey opts to accelerate everything by going in on an offer sheet. Only three skaters are signed beyond the 2019-20 season so the Devils are in a position to lock in a centrepiece for the long-term — though the cost of draft picks may be too risky for where the team is at right now.

Dallas Stars: Although they missed the playoffs, the Stars would fancy themselves a contender with the star players at the top of the depth chart. They were in on Tavares so the money is clearly there and could be willing to give up draft picks for an RFA on the rise. Consider that Dallas’ defence core is in a decent place with John Klingberg and Esa Lindell leading the charge and prospect Miro Heiskanen on the way as soon as next season. They do have to sign Tyler Seguin before he becomes a UFA next summer, but Jason Spezza’s $7.5 million cap hit will be gone by then. There is an opportunity here.

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