Why Other Teams Should Attempt to Sign the Islanders' Restricted Free AgentsJuly 2, 2021
In theory, offer sheets provide possibly the NHL's most exciting mechanism for player movement.
Teams can propose contracts to any restricted free agent. If the player signs the offer sheet, then the incumbent franchise has seven days to either match the deal or concede the player, receiving a predetermined allotment of draft-pick compensation in return. It's an opportunity to poach quality players who are in their early to mid-20s.
In practice, offer sheets are a rarity. Since the salary-cap era began in 2005, only nine have been signed, including just one in the past seven offseasons.
The Edmonton Oilers' signing of Dustin Penner represents the only instance of a team acquiring a restricted free agent via offer sheet, although Dougie Hamilton's trade from the Boston Bruins to the Calgary Flames in 2015 happened because Bruins general manager Don Sweeney feared Hamilton would be tendered an offer sheet his team couldn't match.
Sweeney wanted to dictate the compensation he received, and the Flames gave up one first- and two second-round picks in the 2015 draft for the blueliner. Hamilton soon signed a six-year, $34.5 million deal with Calgary. According to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, had this been in the form of an offer sheet, Boston would have received first-, second- and third-round picks.
For a number of reasons, general managers have more or less decided that pursuing offer sheets is not worth the effort. As such, most offseason speculation of that nature serves as little more than pipe dreams for fans. Elias Pettersson will not be poached from the Vancouver Canucks no matter how many internet GMs try to will the idea into existence.
However, the New York Islanders have three prominent RFAs in Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech and Ilya Sorokin. When analyzing the state of the roster and its financial outlook, the conditions are there for other NHL teams to attempt to buck the trend and make a serious run at signing one of those players away from Long Island.
Evaluating the Islanders' RFAs
Each of the Islanders' three big RFAs is enticing.
Beauvillier, 24, is perhaps one of the most underappreciated forwards in the NHL. In many ways, he's a poster child for the Islanders' model of modest efficiency. His counting numbers aren't flashy, with just 33 goals and 34 assists in 115 games over the past two regular seasons. It's still solid production, but his greater value lies in his ability to drive play.
The left wing is well-rounded offensively. He's strong at creating zone entries, forechecking and cycling the puck. He's a shoot-first forward who can create trouble around the net front. Defensively, he's reliable and responsible, a requirement to survive in a Barry Trotz system. Because of that ability to drive play, Evolving-Hockey ranks his total output in the 87th percentile of all NHLers over the past three seasons.
Pelech, 26, partnered with Ryan Pulock to create one of the most effective, cooperative defensive duos in the NHL this past season. Pelech is not the offensively inclined player of the duo, but he makes up for it with elite defensive play. He's tremendous at suppressing zone entries and keeps shooting opportunities to the outside. Per Evolving-Hockey, his defensive impact ranks in the 97th percentile.
Sorokin came into this season as one of the top young goaltenders in the world, having proved himself in the KHL. He lived up to the billing in his rookie season, posting a .919 save percentage over 29 combined regular-season and playoff games. More specifically, per Evolving-Hockey, he saved 2.57 goals above expected. It's not a large sample size, and goaltending is always volatile, but he has the skill and brief NHL resume to justify a chance at a starting role.
Why the Islanders are Vulnerable
There's at least some merit to the argument that offer sheets are underutilized in the NHL. When not being used in the entry draft, picks are often spent on short-term acquisitions. In comparison, the ability to land a quality young player on a long-term contract is well worth the cost of business.
Still, there are reasons why making one happen isn't easy. For one, the targeted player has to be willing to sign with a different organization. From there, the contract has to be low enough to justify the investment for the team offering the contract yet substantial enough that the original team opts to not match it. That's a tough needle to thread. Chances are that the same reasons other teams would pursue a restricted free agent are going to be why the team that owns his rights will make keeping him a priority.
The Islanders undoubtedly want to keep Beauvillier, Pelech and Sorokin. However, creative bookkeeping will be necessary to make that happen. Per CapFriendly, The Islanders are entering the offseason with roughly $11 million in available cap space with which to sign those three, let alone any other players. Lou Lamoriello is an experienced general manager who isn't going to panic. If given ample time, he will find a way to make that space available, even if it comes at a cost.
Time is the relevant variable here that other teams can exploit. Lamoriello may attempt to make a number of things happen expediently. Among his options are attempting to move Jordan Eberle ($5.5 million average annual value, three years remaining) and Nick Leddy ($5.5 million AAV, one year remaining) in trades, as well as pay another team to take on the contracts of Andrew Ladd ($5.5 million AAV, two years remaining) and Leo Komarov ($3 million AAV, one year remaining).
Otherwise, the Islanders will enter free agency July 28 vulnerable to exploitation. Upon the signing of a theoretical offer sheet, the Islanders would have only seven days to match that and, really, only that week to put themselves in a position to comfortably do so.
Teams are allowed to go over the salary cap during the offseason, so the Islanders could always lock up their RFAs first and then work to clear space afterward. But they would be relinquishing leverage as their problem became more vivid, and the price of moving other contracts would go up tremendously.
What Offer Sheets Could Look Like
While the Islanders would probably love to lock up all three aforementioned RFAs long term, figuring out short-term solutions that limit cap hits and kick the can down the road may be more conducive to making the finances work.
Beauvillier is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2023, meaning Lamoriello could try to convince him to settle for a one- or a two-year deal. Per Evolving-Hockey's estimates, such a deal would fall in the range of $3.5 million-$3.75 million per year.
But what if another team offered him a long-term deal? Per Friedman, a six-year deal in the neighborhood of $5.75 million per year would require compensation of first- and third-round picks. To compare, that's similar to what Toronto gave up to acquire winger Nick Foligno as a rental this season (one first- and two fourth-rounders). To lock up a multifaceted top-six winger in the prime of his career? That's a small price to pay. Many teams should at least take a cursory look at the idea, but the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues are two that stick out as needing help at left wing.
Sorokin is also set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2023. The Athletic's Arthur Staple recently speculated that a one-year deal at $3 million would be "palatable." Any other NHL team in need of a young goaltender should be lusting after a player of his caliber.
Would Sorokin sign for five years at $5 million per season to be the starter elsewhere rather than backing up Semyon Varlamov on a short-term deal? A team like the Detroit Red Wings or the San Jose Sharks shouldn't give up what will likely be a lottery pick (plus a third-rounder) in 2022, but there are others for whom it would be well worth it. As pure conjecture, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild come to mind.
Pelech is the least susceptible to an offer sheet in all likelihood. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022 and is integral to the Islanders' identity. New York is most likely prepared to extend him for the long term. Staple used the contract of Minnesota's Jonas Brodin, who was signed for seven years at $6 million annually in September 2020, as a starting point. Re-signing Pelech is the Islanders' biggest priority this summer.
Memories of 2010 offer a small window of opportunity. The Sharks submitted an offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson. Although the Chicago Blackhawks matched the offer, the long-term deal they were forced into left no remaining cap space to re-sign fellow RFA Antti Niemi, who headed to San Jose.
If the Islanders are forced to act early on Beauvillier and Sorokin and negotiations with Pelech drag on late into the offseason, is there a chance for another team to swoop in? Again, if an opportunity presents itself, the draft picks are worth it for a team expecting to be competitive next season.
Offer sheets should be attempted far more frequently than they are, but the rarity isn't without reason. The Islanders have built a competitive team and a culture that players want to remain part of. Lamoriello is as experienced a GM as there is in professional sports, and he will be well prepared to untangle this problem.
The smart bet is that, just like in most offseasons, offer sheets will be at best sparse and more likely nonexistent. But when it comes to the Islanders' RFAs, there are the conditions in place that lend credibility to the belief that there's an opportunity for other teams, at least in the case of Beauvillier and Sorokin, to poach good players at worthwhile prices.