Welcome to NHL Contracts 101. I’ll be your professor. Look, we’re both hungover, we might as well just get through this.
There are two types of free agents—that is, players who do not currently have an NHL contract and are not unsigned draft picks. They are unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents. Today we’re talking about the latter.
If a restricted free agent reaches the end of his contract on July 1st, and he has not signed an extension, he is free to negotiate with other teams. Those teams can send the player a contract offer. If he chooses to sign it, his team has to decide whether to match the offer and retain the player’s services, or to let the player go and accept draft picks as compensation.
This contract offer is called an “offer sheet”. Every year it is suggested that one might be signed. Sometimes you’ll get people suggesting that it would be a good idea for teams to use them. There is much discussion over them. And then they do not happen.
No player has signed an offer sheet since early 2013. That means it has happened one time under this Collective Bargaining Agreement (Calgary GM Jay Feaster tried to offer sheet Colorado centre Ryan O’Reilly away from the Avalanche.) It was a hilarious mess.
Beyond that? Nothing. No offer sheets. Nada.
Multiple excellent players—including Hampus Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, Nikita Kucherov, and, lemme think, there was one named William something—have had contract negotiations go well into the season, while they sat around unemployed. Still no offer sheets were signed. There was all this talent, supposedly right there for the taking. But why?
Teams Are Afraid Of Retaliation
This doesn’t really happen. Nonetheless, people still talk as if it does, and if GMs believe that, it can be a reason why offer sheets don’t happen in turn. Whatever.
They’re Really Expensive
Okay, so, let’s get down to brass tacks.
Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are both going to make quite a bit of money on their next contracts. We don’t know how much, but we know it’s probably going to be north of $8,000,000 a year for Marner and well north of $10,000,000 for Matthews.
The compensation for a draft pick follows a formula that we aren’t going to worry about here (it scales up based on the average league salary). We don’t exactly know what that’s going to be, but the thrust of it is probably that next year, any offer sheet that has any likelihood of success will probably involve giving up four first-round picks.
If a team either wants to poach a player from the Leafs or wants to seriously inconvenience them by screwing up their salary cap, the team has to make an offer so big that the Leafs would really consider not matching it. Sending Mitch Marner a value deal is doing Kyle Dubas a favour. He would match and smile and send back flowers. It would be cute.
So given this: the teams would be risking a) a lot of money and b) four draft picks. You have to have the cap space to issue an offer sheet (as well as the four firsts.) That’s a big bet! If you’re a general manager, you had better be damn sure you’re ready to roll those dice.
Two Costs That Run Against Each Other
There are nonetheless a lot of teams that would pay a very big premium for a star like Auston Matthews. And there are teams that would give up four first-round picks.
The problem is that the teams who have a lot of cap space tend to be bad (because they aren’t spending their money on good players, or they would be better.) Sometimes this is because they don’t actually have the real money to spend; Arizona and Ottawa both have troubled ownership situations that would make it very difficult for them to spend a ton of dough on a player. Further to that: they would struggle to make a contract with heavy signing bonuses that involve a large payment on July 1st. The Leafs have used large signing bonuses to their advantage in signing both John Tavares and William Nylander, and they’ll probably do it with Marner and Matthews too. Offers from other teams will suffer by comparison.
There are bad teams that do have cap space, like the New York Islanders (assuming they let certain players go.) And hey, maybe Lou Lamoriello has a vendetta against his former team or something*, and maybe his owners are willing to spend. Does he want to give away his next four firsts to do it? He’d better be damn sure the rebuild is over if he does.
*(Lou Lamoriello has never signed a player to an offer sheet as far as I know.)
Even if you want to argue that the total value of four firsts doesn’t add up to one Matthews or Marner—they probably don’t unless they’re quite high picks—that’s a big risk in a league of conservative GMs.
Then there are the good teams, that would love the chance to add another star player to put them over the top. These teams consistently make the playoffs; they might reasonably expect that those four firsts they’d be giving away are going to be picks in the 20s rather than the top ten. The thing is: those teams are generally capped out to hell. The Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins are basically incapable of issuing competitive offer sheets to Marner or Matthews, without making huge internal changes. These teams are also the kind who use later firsts as trade bait, so a couple of them might take themselves out of the running to issue an offer sheet anyway—you can’t do it if you don’t have four of your next five firsts.
Long way of saying: offer sheets are not something teams will do just because it would be funny. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s a huge move for a team to contemplate. Which is why teams don’t seem to have done so very often.
The Player Has To Sign It!
This is an oft-overlooked point. The player has to agree to an offer sheet for it to actually go anywhere. William Nylander’s camp, throughout the whole past few months, said repeatedly he was not pursuing an offer sheet and that he wanted to play in Toronto. It’s possible teams did talk offers with him, but it never resulted in a signing.
If you’re looking at a team that might conceivably offer sheet Matthews or Marner, it has to be that they’d like to play there. Toronto is a pretty nice place to live and about as good a chance as either player will get to contend for a Cup in the next few years. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t ever consider anywhere else. It means it’s another factor thinning out what is already a pretty specific list of possibilities. If the player (like Nylander) is clear that he wants to stay in town, that’s it, show’s over. If he would only move for a considerable raise to a place he really liked, that still takes other teams out of the running.
And if a team does go through all that, the Leafs have to make a decision.
The Leafs Will Match
“We can and we will,” Kyle Dubas said, in reference to keeping his star players. And while a lot of people were ready to throw it at him during the Nylander negotiations, in the end he got the deal done. More recently, he said this:
Dubas on not wanting to trade Nylander: "I don't think we want to get in the business of not having excellent young players."— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 3, 2018
Kyle Dubas knows he’s been blessed with star talent. Star talent is gold in the NHL. Teams go years and years searching for stars. You can fairly say that between 1985 and 2015, the Leafs didn’t draft a single player as good as Matthews or Marner.
For one, this means the Leafs are going to look to extend Matthews and Marner sooner rather than later. Even after the season—you’d figure Marner at least will want to wait until then—there will be a few weeks to wrap up an extension before July 1st, when an offer sheet becomes a possibility. A timely extension means no offer sheet is even possible. But let’s say that doesn’t happen.
Matthews has shown himself to be competitive with the best goal-scorers in the NHL. Marner is flirting with the very best tier of playmakers. They are excellent. And the truth is, the Leafs will keep them. If teams send Marner and Matthews offer sheets for $13M and $11M, well, Toronto will match and figure it out. They might have to unload quite a bit of salary, but they will do it. This would be making them two of the four highest-paid players in the NHL, and would basically require two teams to devote themselves to screwing Toronto over. That’s a hell of a way to run your business, and again: it wouldn’t matter.
You want to know the real reason offer sheets don’t happen? Because the home team matches. Of the nine offer sheets in the last twenty years, the home team matched eight of them. The one that moved was winger Dustin Penner and the Oilers traded him away two and a half years later. Dustin Penner, with all due respect to him and his amusing pancake memes, ain’t in the same universe as Matthews or Marner.
Why This Keeps Coming Up
Offer sheets are fun. I think they can make sense for teams to consider, especially for a mid-range player (not for nothing, but you’ll notice I didn’t put Kasperi Kapanen in the headline). TSN likes them because they like to spout nonsense about Leaf stars so that people will click on videos. Opposing fanbases like them because they’re really envious of the fact that the Leafs have a lot of young talent and they want someone to kneecap us before we contend.
But of all the many things I worry about—injuries, the Leafs cycle, Freddie Andersen getting injured—offer sheets for Auston and Mitchell just aren’t up there. I don’t think they’re coming and I am very confident we can handle them if they do.
Class dismissed, let’s hit the bar.