Restricted Free Agents Most Likely to Receive Offer Sheets in 2014 NHL Offseason
When the NHL's free-agent period begins July 1, the focus will be upon the fate of the top unrestricted free agents. Another group worth watching this summer will be the best restricted free agents. While the rights of these players remain with their respective teams, the possibility exists one or more could sign an offer sheet from another team.
Restricted free agents (RFAs) can hold contract talks with rival teams on the day following the NHL draft, which is June 29 this year. That's also the due date their respective teams can send them qualifying offers. RFAs become ineligible to receive offer sheets once they've either signed a qualifying offer or head to arbitration.
An offer sheet is, in fact, a contract negotiated between a player and a rival club. Offer sheets are usually a rare occurrence. Since the implementation of a salary cap in 2005, only eight NHL players signed offer sheets, and of those only one, Dustin Penner, was successfully signed away.
This season, however, could be different. NESN.com's Nicholas Goss reports NHL commissioner Gary Bettman projects the salary cap for 2014-15 could increase from $64.3 million to between $69-$70 million. Following a season in which the salary cap was artificially lowered from $70.2 million to $64.3 million, some general managers might test their luck with an offer sheet. The lack of quality depth in this summer's UFA market could also be a motivating factor.
Here's a listing of 10 restricted free agents who could receive offer sheets, how much it could take to sign them and possible scenarios by which they could be signed away.
Note: Player stats via NHL.com. Salary information via CapGeek.com.
10. Robin Lehner, Ottawa Senators
Why he could get an offer sheet. Only 22, Robin Lehner has considerable promise as an NHL starting goaltender. Though his numbers weren't great this season (12-15-6, 3.06 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, one shutout), the Senators' lousy defense was largely at fault. He's currently stuck behind veteran Craig Anderson in Ottawa and might welcome a change of scenery.
What it could cost. He's coming off a three-year entry-level deal worth an annual cap hit of $870,000. He also lacks arbitration rights. Anderson is currently earning more than $3 million per season. A three-year offer similar to Anderson's salary could interest Lehner.
How it could happen. The Senators are a budget team. A rival GM in need of goaltending depth, like the New York Islanders (if they fail to re-sign Jaroslav Halak), could gamble on them being unable to match an offer sheet for the promising Lehner.
9. Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings
Why he could get an offer sheet. In only his second NHL season, the 23-year-old left wing finished second on the Red Wings in goals (19) and third in plus/minus (plus-12). He can play every forward position and possesses good two-way instincts. SI.com's Sarah Kwak recently called Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist the next generation of Red Wings' stars. His versatility could make him a worthwhile offer-sheet candidate.
What it could cost. Tatar's finishing an entry-level deal at an annual cap hit of $630,000. He also lacks arbitration rights. The Wings could offer a two-year bridge deal worth $2.5 million annually. It could take a long-term deal worth $4 million per season to pry him out of Detroit.
How it could happen. The Wings have more than $19 million in projected cap space. They must also re-sign RFAs' Danny DeKeyser and Riley Sheahan, plus re-sign or replace Daniel Alfredsson and Jonas Gustavsson. ESPN.com's Craig Custance reported they're also in the market for a veteran right-handed defenseman, linking them to Buffalo's Christian Ehrhoff and Vancouver's Alex Edler. If they fail to re-sign Tatar before making other moves, they could be left with limited space to match an offer sheet for him.
8. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins
Why he could get an offer sheet. Though not a big defenseman (5'9”, 180 pounds), 23-year-old Torey Krug's 40 points in 79 games ranked fourth among rookie scorers this season and tied with Zdeno Chara for eighth on the Bruins. He's also a proven playoff performer, with 14 points in 24 games stretching back to last season. For clubs seeking offense from their blue line, Krug could be an enticing target.
What it could cost. He's coming off an entry-level deal worth over $916,000 per season and lacks arbitration rights. The Bruins could attempt to re-sign him to a two- or three-year bridge deal worth $2.5 million per season. It could take $4 million per season to get his interest.
How it could happen. The Bruins only have a projected $7.49 million in cap space. They are allowed to go over the cap ceiling by 10 percent during the offseason and will get an additional $4.027 million in cap relief when Marc Savard (concussion) goes on long-term injured reserve in October. Still, if they're pressed for cap space, they could have a tough time matching a lucrative offer sheet for Krug.
7. Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers
Why he could get an offer sheet. At 6'5” and 210 pounds, the 22-year-old Erik Gudbranson is a solid physical defenseman with a bit of a mean streak. SunSentinel.com's Harvey Fialkov recently reported Panthers GM Dale Tallon envisions Gudbranson as a future captain. For teams seeking a young shutdown blueliner, Gudbranson could be a worthwhile offer-sheet target.
What it could cost. He's coming out of his entry-level contract worth a base salary of $900,000 per season, plus he lacks arbitration rights. Tallon could offer him a two-year bridge deal worth $3 million per season. It could cost up to $5 million per on a longer term to entice him to sign an offer sheet.
How it could happen. The Panthers have more than $30 million in projected cap space for next season. NHL.com reports Tallon intends to add players to help turn his club into a playoff contender. Three years ago he did this via free agency and could go that route again. If he fails to lock up Gudbranson before going on a free-agent spending spree, it could prove costly if he runs out of cap space to match a lucrative offer sheet.
6. Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers
Why he could get an offer sheet. A gifted puck-moving defenseman, 23-year-old Justin Schultz was sixth on the Oilers in scoring with 33 points this season. Though his defensive game needs work, Schultz has considerable upside. Teams seeking a mobile blueliner could come calling.
What it could cost. He's coming off a two-year entry-level contract, worth a average cap hit of $925,000, though with bonuses it could've gone as high as $3.75 million. He also lacks arbitration rights. It could take an offer up to $5 million per season to get his attention.
How it could happen. Schultz could attract interest from a deeper team, like the Philadelphia Flyers, keen to add a promising young defenseman to their lineup. The Oilers have more than $28 million in projected cap space and can afford to match, but they could be unwilling to overpay.
5. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Why he could get an offer sheet. Only 21, Jaden Schwartz had an impressive sophomore season. He finished fourth in Blues scoring with 56 points, leading them in plus/minus (plus-28). He's a versatile forward, capable of playing center if needed.
What it could cost. He's coming off an entry-level contract worth an average cap hit of $830,000 per season. He also lacks arbitration rights. The Blues could offer a two-year bridge deal worth $2.5 million per season. It could take an offer sheet worth between $4-5 million per season to sign him.
How it could happen. The Blues have more than $25 million in projected cap space, but also have several key players to re-sign or replace, including Ryan Miller, Patrik Berglund, Steve Ott and Vladimir Sobotka. If they commit most of that space toward those players before re-signing Schwartz, he could become a tempting target for an offer sheet.
4. Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning
Why he could get an offer sheet. Though he's coming off a three-year entry-level deal, this was Ondrej Palat's rookie season. He was a standout for the Lightning, netting 23 goals and 59 points to finish second in team scoring and second in playoff scoring. Palat also finished second in rookie scoring behind Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon. He's a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
What it could cost. Palat earned an average annual cap hit of $579,167 on his entry-level deal. The Lightning could try to get him under a two- or three-year bridge deal in the neighborhood of $3 million per season. A rival club could send him an offer sheet worth up to $5.5 million per season.
How it could happen. The Lightning have more than $23 million in projected cap space, though it remains to be seen if they'll keep pace with the cap ceiling next season. The Tampa Tribune's Erik Erlendsson reports they could try to bolster their defense via trades, which could take a significant chunk out of their cap space. That could prompt a club seeking scoring depth on left wing, like the New Jersey Devils, to send Palat an offer sheet.
3. Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets
Why he could get an offer sheet. Ryan Johansen is a big (6'3”, 223-pounds) center with plenty of upside. In only his third NHL season, the 21-year-old had a breakthrough performance with 33 goals and 63 points. He was the Jackets' leading scorer in the regular season and tied for second in team playoff scoring with six points.
What it could cost. Johansen's coming off a three-year, bonus-laden entry-level contract worth an average annual cap hit of $870,000. The Blue Jackets could offer him a two- or three-year bridge deal worth $3 million per season. A long-term offer sheet worth $5.5 million per season could prove attractive to him.
How it could happen. NBC Sports' Mike Halford, citing the Columbus Dispatch, reports Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn't worried about re-signing Johansen. The Jackets have more than $22 million in projected cap space, and Johansen is their most significant free agent. Still, a team in need of scoring depth, like the Buffalo Sabres, could test them with a substantial long-term offer.
2. Ryan O'Reilly, Colorado Avalanche
Why he could get an offer sheet. Only 23, Ryan O'Reilly is fast gaining a reputation as one of the NHL's best two-way players. His disciplined play (he earned only one minor penalty this season) garnered the Avs' winger his first Lady Byng trophy nomination, as he set career-best numbers in goals (28), assists (36) and points (64). O'Reilly can play center as well as wing. His skills and versatility would make him a welcome addition on any team.
What it could cost. Last season the Calgary Flames unsuccessfully attempted to sign O'Reilly away with a two-year, $10 million deal. It'll cost much more than that now. Qualifying his rights alone will cost the Avalanche $6.5 million unless they re-sign him to a lesser deal before then. If he's still unsigned by July, it could take a seven-year deal at $7.5 million per season to land him.
How it could happen. The Avalanche have $25 million in projected cap space. Re-signing pending UFA Paul Stastny could take up a good portion of that cap space. The Avs must also look ahead to re-signing rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon by as early as next summer. A lengthy, expensive offer sheet for O'Reilly could be too rich for the Avalanche to match. Teams seeking a top two-way forward, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, could make a pitch.
1. P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
Why he could get an offer sheet. Only 24, P.K. Subban has arrived as an NHL superstar. He won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman last season. He was the Canadiens' second-leading scorer during the regular season and is currently their leading playoff scorer.
What it could cost. Subban's coming off a two-year, $5.75 million contract. He's in line for a big raise. Earlier this season TSN.ca's Bob McKenzie speculated Subban could seek between $8 million to $9 million per season on an eight-year deal. For a superstar like Subban, whose best seasons remain ahead of him, it could take an offer sheet up to $10 million per season to lure him out of Montreal.
How it could happen. The Canadiens currently have more than $27 million in projected cap space. Assuming they re-sign pending UFAs Tomas Vanek and Andrei Markov for roughly the same cap hits (combined $13 million) as their current contracts, that will bite deeply into their cap space. If they make other moves before re-signing Subban, it could hamper them from matching an expensive offer sheet. A desperate club in need of a top-two defenseman, like the Edmonton Oilers or New York Islanders, could have interest in him.