Why The Maple Leafs Should Offer Sheet Ryan O'Reilly

Bruce Bennett

Why the Toronto Maple Leafs should offer-sheet Ryan O'Reilly and why it could work

Now that P.K. Subban and Jamie Benn have signed, with the Montreal Canadiens and Dallas Stars respectively, there is only one big ticket restricted free agent (RFA) who remains unsigned: centre Ryan O'Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche. O'Reilly lead the Avs in scoring during the last NHL season (2011-12) at just 20 years old and a number of trustworthy hockey scribes have reported that talks between him and the Avalanche are moving at a pace that, were I inclined toward bad puns, I might describe as "glacial".

With O'Reilly sitting unsigned and the Leafs sorely lacking in depth at the centre position it seems at first glance like they might be well advised to attempt to acquire him. My preference would be that they try to work out a trade with the Avalanche but assuming they couldn't do that would an offer-sheet be worthwhile? I'm going to break the answer to that question down into two parts. The first will look at what kind of value O'Reilly actually has; is he the kind of high-end centre the Leafs could count on to lock down the first line centre position moving forward? After that I'll look at a potentially more difficult question: could an offer-sheet actually work?

O'REILLY'S VALUE

The first question to answer is whether O'Reilly is actually worth pursuing. With Mikhail Grabovski locked in long-term as a highly effective 2nd line centre and with a number of players (Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Jay McClement) capable of handling the load on the 3rd line, the Leafs have one major hole at the centre position and that's on the top line with Phil Kessel. I can't fault Tyler Bozak for being thrown in over his head but he's not cut out to be a top line centre on a team that has dreams of contending so the Leafs need to find a replacement. So if we're going to go after Ryan O'Reilly, we need to have a pretty good idea that he can be a top line player moving forward. Can he?

The first thing we'll take a look at to answer that question is his scoring. O'Reilly made his debut in the NHL at just 18 scoring 26 points in 81 games. The next year he scored 26 points again, this time in 74 games, increasing his per-game scoring as he saw his shooting percentage double. Then during the last NHL season in 2011-12 he more than doubled his scoring to 55 points in 81 games, seeing increased ice time and better linemates, playing much of the season on Colorado's most effective line with Gabriel Landeskog. How good is 55 points for a 20 year old? For comparison purposes I like to use per-game stats to account for missed games, and O'Reilly scored 0.68 points per game as a 20 year old. Here's a list of comparable players from the last 15 NHL seasons:

Player GP G A PTS PPG 70+ PT Seasons
Vincent Lecavalier 68 23 28 51 0.75 5
Joe Thornton 81 23 37 60 0.74 11
Jason Spezza 78 22 33 55 0.71 5
Martin Havlat 72 22 28 50 0.69 1
Stever Bernier 39 14 13 27 0.69 0
Ryan O'Reilly 81 18 37 55 0.68 0
Ryan Getzlaf 57 14 25 39 0.68 3
Alex Tanguay 76 17 34 51 0.67 4
Wojtek Wolski 76 22 28 50 0.66 0
Nathan Horton 71 28 19 47 0.66 0

It's a pretty impressive list. Along with these players's stats for their 20 year old season I've included one last column indicating how many times each player has scored at least 70 points in an NHL season; I did this to try to gauge how many of them showed marked improvement from their 20 year old season. The 70+ point column actually underestimates this somewhat, as players like Getzlaf and Spezza would definitely have had more 70+ point seasons were it not for injuries.

Of the players on this list, only the bottom two and Steve Bernier have failed to ever hit 70 points. Bernier only played 39 games in his 20 year old season and seems to have benefitted from the big scoring boost in the 2005-06 season, so I think he can be safely discarded. Wolski is a bizarre case, but Horton has proven to be a reliable first line player (if not an elite one), generally scoring in the 60-70 point range over 82 games. So this list strongly suggests that O'Reilly is a legitimate, long-term first line talent.

The closest player to O'Reilly on this list, you may have noticed, is Ryan Getzlaf. Not only is their PPG total the same, but their individual goal and assist rates are very close too. There are an awful lot of Leafs fans who would love to add Ryan Getlzaf this summer if he hits unrestricted free agency. But wouldn't it make more sense to take a big run at landing the much younger and likely cheaper player who projects similarly?

So that's scoring but scoring isn't everything in the NHL. Winning teams tend to have strong possession stats (Corsi/Fenwick) and the Leafs' top line currently has one of the worst centres in the league from a possession standpoint. In 2011-12, Tyler Bozak brought down every single one of his team-mates' Corsi percentage. Adding a centre who could reverse that trend would be a pretty big boost to the Leafs' ability to win games. Using the great WOWY (with or without you) tool created by David Johnson, I put together a chart of how many of the players Ryan O'Reilly played with had their Corsi % boosted by playing with him over the past two years. I restricted it to players who were on the ice for at least 100 minutes with O'Reilly to reduce the potential for strange outliers who only played a few shifts together.

Year Position # Better # Worse
2011-12 Forward 3 1
2011-12 Defence 7 0
2010-11 Forward 6 0
2010-11 Defence 7 1

The one forward in the past two years whose Corsi % was actually better away from O'Reilly was, as you may have guessed, Gabriel Landeskog. Only one defenceman in two years had a worse Corsi % with O'Reilly than away from him, and that was Scott Hannan, who only just barely made the cut-off for this list at 105 minutes. It's pretty clear that O'Reilly is a player who drives play and makes those around him better. A play-making centre who can put up points while driving play and locking down the defensive side of the game? Sounds like exactly what the Leafs need on the Phil Kessel line.

MAKING AN OFFER-SHEET WORK

The obvious question this raises is why Colorado would be willing to let that kind of player go. One answer is that most NHL teams don't seem to recognise the value of possession play although O'Reilly does have a reputation as a defensive stalwart. So let's say that Colorado does see tremendous value in O'Reilly and won't trade him. Could an offer-sheet be put together that might be able to steal him away? I think it might be possible and it's largely on account of the strange circumstances of this lock-out shortened season.

Before diving into the financial details, I want to address something that appeared in Elliotte Friedman's latest 30 Thoughts column on the topic of someone trying to offer-sheet O'Reilly (or at-the-time-unsigned PK Subban). Here's what Friedman said:

Many of you have asked about offer sheets. As one GM (not one quoted elsewhere in this blog) said: "If Nashville is going to match that offer to Shea Weber, what the [bleep's] the point of doing one?"

I think that's a flawed understanding of how what happenned in Nashville. The Predators had just lost Ryan Suter to Minnesota. Two years prior they lost Dan Hamhuis to Vancouver [originally said one year, correction made]. They were facing the prospect of losing a 3rd top pair defender in just over two years. It would have decimated the franchise. Not only that, but Weber is almost universally acknowledged as one of the best defencemen in the game, a prime-age Norris Trophy nominee who had played a major role on Canada's gold medal winning Olympic team in 2010. His situation was pretty unique, and was perhaps akin to offer-sheeting Steven Stamkos. It's probably true that you're not going to steal a player of that calibre with an offer-sheet. But as good as O'Reilly is, he's not one of the true superstars of the game. That makes his situation different.

So how would you go about structuring an offer-sheet to take him away from Colorado? As I say, it has to do with a couple of quirks of playing a shortened season. Unfortunately I can't find a direct link to support this but I've seen in a number of places that signing bonuses this season aren't pro-rated, unlike salaries. Because of the shortened season, if a signing bonus were to be offered now and on the 2nd year of a contract, they would have to be paid out just 5 months apart, and on only half a season's worth of revenue. The Colorado Avalanche are basically a small market team. According to my own calculations, Colorado is 4th last in the NHL in ticket revenue and they've operated on a tight budget in recent years. So if you want to offer sheet Ryan O'Reilly, you're going to need to take advantage of those details. You may also have to overpay a bit to get the value high enough that Colorado might not want to match. I went with an average annual value of $6 million here but you could modify the idea as needed to hit a different AAV if you wanted. Here's how I would structure the offer-sheet:

Year Salary Bonus
1 8.5 7.5
2 7.8 6.8
3 5 0
4 4.25 0
5 4.25 0

This actually provides a cap hit of $5.96 million, but that's close enough. I've tried to stack the cap about as high as I could up front without violating the NHL's new rules about contract variance. Based on other recent contract signings I'm guessing that at least $1 million must be kept back in salary and can not be offered as a signing bonus. Because signing bonuses are not pro-rated, Ryan O'Reilly would be one of the top paid players in the NHL this season, with all of that money coming on the day the contract comes into effect, making this an extremely enticing offer for a player who is by all accounts pretty unhappy with what the Avalanche are offering him. He would then be owed another $6.8 million on July 1, bringing the total compensation paid to $14.1 million plus the pro-rated portion of this year's $1 million over only 5 months. Would Colorado be willing to pay more than $14 million compensation to keep O'Reilly on their roster? Could they even afford to do so with only half a season of revenues coming in?

I don't know if this kind of offer-sheet would actually work. But I think there's good reason to believe it might. The Toronto Maple Leafs have tremendous financial power that most other clubs don't have and this is a perfect storm of circumstances for them to flex that muscle to try to add a top-tier player to their lineup for a good long term. At the cost of a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick, I think it's a risk worth taking.

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