Offer sheets are a rare occurrence in the NHL. The last offer sheet signed was back in February of 2013, when the Calgary Flames tried to sign then Avalanche centre Ryan O’Reilly to a two-year, $10-million contract. Colorado immediately matched.
Every summer since that offer sheet, we have speculated about how many others we might see (the answer, every year, has been zero) and the impact it might have on the NHL landscape. The offer sheet discussions have hit an apex over the last month or so, exacerbated by the salary cap crunch a number of teams are experiencing heading into the off-season. Once again, we are left to ruminate over which teams might be willing to make the mega offer for a restricted free agent like Toronto’s Mitch Marner, Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point, or Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen.
Isn’t that what always happens? We pull out the handful of restricted free agents that should command a significant pay bump, then theorize which teams could bring them in by way of an offer sheet. But that’s why offer sheets have largely been misunderstood. Teams don’t look to move superstar players. And even if they are considering it, you still need another team to internally justify the idea of trading as many as four first-round picks – not to mention adding a significant salary – for one player in a hard cap league.
Compounding the issue, compensation brackets for offer sheets are exponential, not linear. The better the player, the more penalizing the compensation becomes:
Instead of focusing on the most premium talent, focus on the middle tiers of the compensation table. For 2019, a player who signs an offer sheet between $2.1 million and $4.2 million would require a second-round pick for compensation; a player who signs an offer sheet between $4.2 million and $6.3 million would require a first-round pick and a third-round pick for compensation. In other words: a team could strategically tender two offer sheets at the same time and put a cap-strapped or cash-poor team in a contract bind.
I have written about dual offer sheets a few times in the past, most recently in 2015. There, I mentioned the idea of using dual offer sheets to attack a few teams with budding and developing players. The best example in retrospect concerned the Ottawa Senators, who had Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Mika Zibanejad coming due in the same year. (I would be remiss to not note that Ottawa has since traded all three of those players.) In 2016, teams could have targeted Washington’s Dmitri Orlov and Marcus Johansson, or Minnesota’s Matt Dumba and Darcy Kuemper.
So what does it look like for the summer of 2019? Let’s start with the teams we believe are financially restricted right now and work backwards. CapFriendly shows 12 teams feeling varying degrees of cap pressure. Some, like Vegas, have no space left. Others, like San Jose, have space today but will see that space erode as the size of their active roster increases.
Our pool of targeted teams is 12. Now we need to tease out teams who have multiple restricted free agents due this year. The below table shows players who could be vulnerable to a dual offer sheet strategy:
Your pool of teams definitely dwindles from here. Vegas, for example, is already reportedly dangling Nikita Gusev as a sweetener to move salary elsewhere. Teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago just don’t have any meaningful restricted free agent assets worth targeting for our middle tier.
But a few teams offer intriguing options. In no particular order, some of the more interesting opportunities available:
Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner has commanded all of the attention as the biggest name restricted free agent in Toronto, and perhaps anywhere. But while we are all speculating whether or not Marner will land an eight-figure (per year!) contract, an opportunity may have been missed. The Maple Leafs are reportedly close to extending both Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, two other valuable restricted free agents, on team-friendly contracts. A rival team could offer both players a reasonable pay bump – one earning as high as $4.1-million per year, say, and another earning as low as $4.3-million per year. Depending on how you rated them (both did score 20 goals last year), you could escalate it higher than that and really put the Maple Leafs in a pinch. Unfortunately it sounds like the ship may be sailing on this opportunity, but it’s hard to find a better example than the one existing in Toronto. (Especially with Marner still outstanding.)
Washington Capitals: Jakub Vrana had an outstanding 2018-19 season, and has proven to be a very capable middle-six forward. The team has held enough money back to retain both players, but they may want to keep some space protected as they attempt to improve the roster come July 1. It would seem likely that Vrana – especially after the season he had – would be a logical re-sign, which opens up the idea of the winger Burakovsky to be targeted by another club.
San Jose Sharks: This might be the most enticing of all of the groups available. After signing Erik Karlsson to a monster max contract, money is tight again in San Jose. They have Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Gustav Nyquist sitting without contracts, and Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc sitting as restricted free agents. Meier’s 74-point 2018-19 season surely spiked his contractual demands, but you wonder if you can draw interest from Meier by way of a shorter-term bridge deal at the top of the compensation range (around $6-million AAV), and parlay that with a smaller-sized contract the way of Kevin Labanc. Meier is an integral piece for San Jose and they will fight hard to keep him. To that end, perhaps targeting Labanc – who had 56 points last year – in a lower tier could bring an impact middle-six forward at a very reasonable price.
Enjoy the opening of free agency!