Will We Ever See Another NHL Offer Sheet?
Offer sheets have become a rare occurrence in the National Hockey League.
For those unaware of what an offer sheet is, a restricted free agent (RFA) can, after receiving a qualifying offer from their team, sign an offer from another club for a salary greater than their qualifier. His team has seven days from the date the player signed the offer to match it. If they don’t, they receive compensatory draft picks based on the amount of the annual average salary the player will receive for that season.
Since 1986, 35 players have signed offer sheets. Among them were eventual Hall of Famers such as Scott Stevens (who signed one in 1990 and again in 1994), Brendan Shanahan and Michel Goulet (both in 1991), Teemu Selanne (1992), Joe Sakic (1997) and Sergei Fedorov (1998).
Of those 35 offers sheets, 20 were matched, 13 were accepted, one was dropped and another invalidated.
The last player to sign an offer sheet was Ryan O’Reilly in February 2013. This came just over a month following a lockout that wiped out half of the 2012-13 NHL season.
O’Reilly, who was embroiled in a contract impasse with the Colorado Avalanche, signed a two-year deal worth $10 million (with a $2 million signing bonus) with the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28, 2013. The following day, the Avalanche matched the offer.
The implementation of the salary-cap system in 2005 was expected to make it easier for teams to sign players to offer sheets, particularly those on clubs with limited cap space.
Since 2005-06, however, only eight players – O’Reilly, Ryan Kesler, Thomas Vanek, Dustin Penner, David Backes, Steve Bernier, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Shea Weber – signed offer sheets. All but Penner’s were matched.
The dearth of offer sheets in recent years could be tied to an overall reluctance among team owners and general managers to employ that tactic. It’s almost as though they have a “gentlemen’s agreement” to make poaching another club’s RFAs out of bounds.
That would smack of collusion but proving it is easier said than done. There’s no indication that the owners and general managers have any kind of formal arrangement in place preventing the pursuit of rival players with offer sheets. Meanwhile, the NHL Players Association doesn’t appear to have any concern over the absence of these offers since 2013.
Perhaps the general managers want to avoid anything that would raise ill will among their ranks. The last thing they want is a GM publicly declaring outrage over a rival attempting to sign away a player, as was the case in 2007 when then-Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke expressed his fury through the media with then-Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe for successfully signing away Penner from the Ducks.
Some pundits suggest the GMs want to avoid a tit-for-tat scenario whereby a team successfully signs away an RFA from a cap-strapped rival, only to find themselves targeted down the road when they have limited cap payroll.
Offer sheets also contribute to driving up the market value for comparable players. It’s bad enough the general managers are already doing that by re-signing some RFAs to overinflated deals. They don’t need a rival swooping in with an unmatchable offer.
The players could also be unwilling to sign an offer sheet. While they’re restricted free agents, a rival GM can contact a player’s agent to determine if his client is open to accepting an offer. If the past five years are anything to go by, RFAs seem disinterested in that option.
Of course, the possibility always exists that a desperate GM or one who thinks “outside the box” will one day sign a big-name RFA to an offer sheet. Given the factors currently in play nowadays, the chances of that appear slim.
That raises the question of whether the offer sheet will remain part of the next collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA. Most likely it will, as the team owners see it as a mostly harmless device while the players probably prefer keeping that option in place.
As the start of each new free-agent period approaches, we’ll keep seeing speculation over which players could become offer-sheet targets or which clubs could take the plunge. Barring a major change in current attitudes among the teams or a shift in the rules governing restricted free agent signings, the offer sheet will remain a rarity in today’s NHL.