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Do offer sheets really provoke retaliation?

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A look at the consequences of offer sheeting RFAs.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year again, where fans turn their minds to the offseason and debate how to improve their teams. Inevitably, after the free agent market is combed through and debated to death, someone wonders: could we sign a restricted free agent to an offer sheet?

Most recently and most prominently, Tyler Dellow of The Athletic laid out a creative and intriguing rationale for how the Leafs might conceivably shore up their weakest position (right defence) by issuing a very pricey one-year offer sheet to St. Louis Blues defender Colton Parayko. The short version was that the Leafs could, were Parayko interested, make a proposal that would be extremely difficult for the Blues to match.

Hockey Twitter promptly debated the merits of the idea and raised a flood of objections, including:

a) It’s too expensive

b) The draft pick compensation is too high

c) It’ll never happen

d) Teams will retaliate

The first two issues are valuation questions, although Dellow makes a strong case that neither is the case with Parayko. The third thing is probably true, but that doesn’t really bear on whether the Leafs should try to offer sheet somebody. So let’s go to the fourth thing.

If the Leafs offer sheet a player, will the GMs of the league wreak havoc on them?

Offer Sheets

The basic mechanics of an offersheet: an eligible player reaches July 1st and the end of his contract, and becomes a restricted free agent according to section 10.2 of the CBA. Another team decides to offer him a contract, and (people often overlook this part) the player decides to sign it. His original team has a week to either match the offer (thereby keeping him on the same contract terms the other team offered) or to let him go and accept draft picks from the other team. The draft picks vary depending on the value of the contract being offered.

You could be forgiven for not knowing any of this, because no player has signed an offer sheet in four years. (We don’t know if any were offered that the player did not sign.) Only one player has signed an offer sheet under the current CBA, and it was right at the beginning—in February 2013, Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster tried to sign away Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado matched. Under the last CBA (2005-2013), offer sheets were somewhat more common—seven total were signed over that period.

Given that offer sheets would seem to be a way to acquire very good and relatively young players—for example, last year, Hampus Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov were all available to offer sheet for most of the summer—you might wonder why teams have almost completely stopped using them.

The Threat

There are a very limited number of NHL GMs. Even if they didn’t largely come from the same backgrounds (they do), they’d still have to deal with each other on a regular basis to make trades, go to the GM meetings, and so on. While they’re all competing with each other, the fact remains that making your fellow GMs mad is potentially inconvenient.

Having one of your top RFAs offer-sheeted is a very upsetting experience for GMs. You have to choose between losing a star player in his prime or paying him more money than you’d like. The whole point of RFA status (like most of the CBA) is to facilitate teams holding onto their players for less than market value. Offer sheets ruin that for you.

In fact, the whole league has an interest in keeping RFA salaries down, because every GM has RFAs of his own. Offer sheets violate the gentleman’s agreement; you might famously remember that then-Ducks GM Brian Burke wanted to fight then-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe in a barn for daring to offer sheet Dustin Penner away from Anaheim.

So the theory goes as follows: offer sheets are such a troublesome weapon that in response to a team using one, the rest of the league will:

a) Offer sheet that team’s RFAs in turn

b) Refuse to trade with that GM

That’s a scary thing to contemplate. Especially for a team like Toronto, which has very significant RFA negotiations of its own coming in the next few years.

Is it a real issue?

Do teams who sign players to offer sheets suffer offer sheets in turn?

Generally no. Of the eight teams to sign players to offer sheets since 2005, only one suffered an offer sheet in turn from anybody.

That one time was probably direct retaliation, but it was a pretty weak comeback. After Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis signed St. Louis forward David Backes to an offer in 2008, the Blues (under GM Larry Pleau) tried to respond seven days later by signing Vancouver depth forward Steve Bernier for one year and $2.5M. This would be a bit like if the Blues retaliated to our signing Parayko by immediately offer sheeting Zach Hyman. The Canucks matched without any trouble.

It’s worth emphasizing this: in the cap era, no team that has signed a star RFA to an offer sheet has had its own stars sign offer sheets later. Brian Burke might have wanted to punch Kevin Lowe, but he never tried to sign away his restricted free agents.

Why? Two reasons. The first is that teams who become the victims of offer sheets are often in cap trouble anyways (or else there’d be no point signing their players, because they’d easily match.) But the second is that signing a player to a meaningful offer sheet involves too much money, and too much potential compensation, to be undertaken out of petty revenge. A general manager might conceivably decide to offer William Nylander a $60,000,000 contract—but he won’t do it unless he’s convinced it’s a very good use of money and first-rounders.

Do GMs who sign RFAs to offer sheets get blacklisted by other teams?

If the NHL really takes vengeance, we would expect to see GMs struggling to conduct routine trades. Having broken the sacred code by employing an offer sheet, they should be shut out in the cold.

There are seven general managers who have signed players to offer sheets since 2005 (Kevin Lowe did it twice.) Here are the teams they traded with after issuing their offer sheets.

Calgary GM Jay Feaster—Signed Colorado’s Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet in February 2013; fired in December 2013. In between those dates, Feaster traded with: Pittsburgh, St. Louis (2x), Columbus, Florida, Colorado, San Jose, Toronto, Edmonton, Anaheim, and Dallas. Notable: Colorado GM Greg Sherman, who made the decision to match the O’Reilly offer sheet, apparently managed an emotional recovery from Feaster’s terrible deed in time to make a trade with him four months later.

Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren—Signed Nashville’s Shea Weber to an offer sheet in July 2012; promoted to team president in May 2014. In between those dates, Holmgren traded with: Boston, the New York Islanders (2x), Colorado, the New York Rangers, Columbus (2x, Detroit, Los Angeles, Calgary, and Carolina.

San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson—Signed Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet in July 2010; is still presently the Sharks’ GM. In between that date and now, Wilson traded with: Pittsburgh (3x), Atlanta/Winnipeg (2x), New Jersey, Carolina (2x), Minnesota (4x), Florida (2x), Tampa Bay (2x), Colorado (2x), Detroit, Chicago (2x), the New York Rangers (2x), Nashville, Arizona (2x), Calgary, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Dallas, the New York Islanders, Vancouver (2x) Boston, Toronto (2x), Detroit, and Ottawa. Chicago seems to have gotten over however upset it felt at Hjalmarsson being signed to an offer sheet enough to deal with Wilson again.

St. Louis GM Larry Pleau—Signed Steve Bernier to an offer sheet in July 2008; promoted to St. Louis’ Vice-President in July 2010. In between those dates, he traded with: Toronto (2x), Pittsburgh (5x), Nashville, Columbus (3x), Chicago, Montreal (2x), Colorado (2x), Boston (2x), Washington (3x), Florida (2x), Tampa Bay, Buffalo (5x), Anaheim, the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay, New Jersey, Calgary (3x), Ottawa, Edmonton (3x), Arizona. Pleau’s was the retaliatory offer sheet against Vancouver, so perhaps teams wouldn’t have held it against him, but I’ve included his list for completeness.

Vancouver GM Mike Gillis—Signed St. Louis’ David Backes to an offer sheet in July 2008; fired in April 2014. In between those dates, Gillis traded with: Ottawa (2x) Tampa Bay, Chicago, Anaheim (2x), Arizona (2x), San Jose, Carolina (3x), St. Louis, Florida (7x), Nashville, Minnesota, the New York Islanders, Columbus, Buffalo, Dallas, New Jersey, Montreal, and the New York Rangers. Two thing stand out: Gillis subsequently conducted a trade with the team whose player he offer-sheeted, and Vancouver has a weirdly close connection with the Panthers.

Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe—Signed Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek and Anaheim’s Dustin Penner to offer sheets in July 2007; promoted to director of hockey operations in July 2008. In between those dates, he traded with: Columbus, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Carolina.

Philadelphia GM Bobby Clarke—Signed Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler to an offer sheet in September 2006; resigned October 2006. No trades. I guess the NHL embargoed Clarke for the last month of his tenure.

***

As you can guess from these lists, there’s just no evidence that NHL GMs have seriously cared about enforcing some kind of punishment for offer sheets. If you think they’re going to do so now, you have to figure out why they didn’t do it before, and what’s changed.

When it comes down to it, GMs are still competitors in a high-pressure market. I’m not saying they’re ever pleased to see an offer sheet signed. I’m saying that they seem to get over whatever anger they felt very quickly when it’s time to make a trade. Even the teams who have been victims of offer sheets don’t seem to hold a persistent grudge.

The threat of serious retaliation for offer sheets doesn’t seem real.

What does this mean?

This doesn’t mean offer sheets are a painless undertaking. They’re expensive, and the home team usually matches. Teams are also hesitant to act to raise player salaries, and most GMs are inherently conservative. You have to account for those things in considering one (Dellow generally does, in his piece.)

From a Leafs perspective, what this does mean is we shouldn’t be afraid the league will take revenge on us for trying it. All the evidence is that they’ll get over their feelings the next time an interesting trade is on the table.