The Offer Sheet and The Restricted Free-Agent: A Return to The NHL
When the lockout happened, there were a lot of things that were supposed to happen.
Some promises were followed through on, while others—the "no more insane contracts" promise for one—fell by the wayside and became the stuff of legend, and just something the fans could look back on and laugh at.
The one promise that seems to have come to fruition, is the renewed importance of the restricted free agent.
The practice of signing players to an offer sheet was once a fairly common occurrence in the NHL—between 1986 and 1998 there were 27 players signed to offer sheets. Of those 27 offer sheets, thirteen of them were matched by the original clubs while all but one of the remaining cases (Craig Simpson's offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks in 1993 was invalidated) saw the targeted player switch teams.
In those years we saw players like Joe Sakic and Sergei Fedorov sign monstrous deals (in accordance with the times) only to be matched by their original clubs, while impact players such as Scott Stevens, Brendan Shanahan, Michel Goulet, Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk, and Ron Tugnutt caught opponents' eyes and became worth the risk of dropping a large chunk of the future (in some cases: five first round draft picks) in exchange for some immediate help in the then-present day.
But from 1998-2004, the offer sheet became an extinct practice, as teams were more concerned with spending larger amounts of money on unrestricted free agents who could be lured away by such lucrative deals, rather than chance their funds and their future, and waste their time on a player who could easily be retained—especially by a team with deep pockets.
But following the lockout, and the expected lowering of player salaries, word was that the offer sheet was going to become a useful tool in today's NHL—a tool that would increase competition between teams and entice them to build in different ways if one were too close to the cap to splurge on a big-name unrestricted free agent.
The offseason following the lockout, Bobby Clarke got the ball rolling, handing out a one-year, $1.9 million contract to the Canucks' Ryan Kesler. Because the offer sheet had been "out of play" for so long, Clarke was vilified, and accused of 'driving up the price' of Kesler with ancient tactics, as well as trying to cripple the Canucks, as they would be close to the then-cap of $44-million with the added signing.
Despite the glares from the public and around the league, Clarke defended his decision, saying that the Dallas Stars, who had just traded for Willie Mitchell that past season, would have loved an opportunity to have matched the Canucks' contract for the unrestricted defenseman, or at least received compensation for him.
In Clarke's eyes, the rules were fair because everyone had equal opportunity—they could target whoever was available, and the team had the option to match or take the compensation. In the Canucks' case, the compensation would have been a second-round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft had they not matched the Flyers' offer.
"They [the Stars] traded for him last year and liked him. But that's the rules in the CBA [collective bargaining agreement]. The rules aren't convenient just for one team, they're there for everybody. You can't pick and choose. If you like one rule and I like one rule, does that mean we can only use one rule? That's crazy."-CBC.ca
Following the confusion and anger of the first post-lockout offer sheet, people wondered if anyone would try it again the next year.
Kevin Lowe soon put that speculation to rest.
In an attempt to save face after being spurned by Chris Pronger's "lost desire" to play in Edmonton, and a 'yes he is, no he isn't' moment from Michael Nylander, Lowe turned to the offer sheet in an attempt to help him land an impact player.
Hoping to exploit the Buffalo Sabres' low-budget, Lowe targeted Thomas Vanek with a a seven-year, $50-million dollar deal on July 6th. Despite the ludicrously high compensation (four consecutive first-round picks beginning in 2008) Buffalo had no choice but to match the offer sheet, seeing as they had already bid adieu to their two budding stars Daniel Briere and Chris Drury that offseason.
The potential compensation wasn't the only thing strangely high, as the offer sheet Vanek signed and the Sabres matched, had him earning $10 million in the first season—an extremely high price tag, even for a forty-goal scorer.
The complaints surfaced again however, as GMs around the league voiced their displeasure over the seedy tactics of using high-dollar amounts to secure fairly unproven players—Ryan Kesler was somehow eligible to earn nearly $2-million after scoring only 10 goals, while Kevin Lowe proceeded to kick the Sabres while they were down with a big-money contract for a player who had just completed his second season.
Lowe continued his search, and inked a second player twenty days later to an offer sheet. This time, it was the Anaheim Ducks' Dustin Penner—a player who tallied 45 points in his first full NHL season, and only 8 points during the Stanley Cup run made by Anaheim.
Irate at Lowe's tactics, Brian Burke refused to match the offer sheet, and instead took the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks in 2008, allowing Penner to "earn" his $4.25 million per season a week later in Edmonton.
Following that, Burke accused Lowe of "throwing a grenade" at the Oilers and the rest of the teams in the NHL, while Lowe—fed up with Burke—recently called Burke a "moron" and a "media junkie".
Following last season's inflated contracts handed out by Lowe, one has to wonder how much impact the restricted free agent scene had on their unrestricted brethren?
Were there players in negotiations this year saying that they had careers similar to that of Dustin Penner over a longer period of time, which allowed them to demand that type of money or more?
Were there established NHL'ers out there saying that they've played in the league longer than these 'kids' and that they've actually earned their 4, 5, or 6 year contract?
Well, unless you have a phone tap, we'll never know.
We do know, however, that the threat of what Lowe has done will forever loom over the NHL each and every offseason, which has introduced these nine-year, fourteen-year, and fifteen-year contracts that teams' key players are being signed too— after all, no one wants to lose their Alexander Ovechkin to a smooth-talking GM with lots of cap space right?
We also know that the offer sheet is making a comeback—we've already seen the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues trade them back and forth on Steve Bernier and David Backes.
How many more can we expect this offseason? Well we aren't sure of that, and we aren't sure if we'll see anyone get vastly overpaid either.
What we can be sure of, is that in the quickly changing landscape of the "new" NHL, the offer sheet is back—and it's certainly wreaking havoc.
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