Here I am, several weeks ago:
Every year between the end of the Leafs season and the draft we have a brief moment where we talk about offer sheets as if they are a real thing that happens. It's a sign that spring is truly here.— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) May 8, 2018
Three days after that Tweet, the Leafs promoted Kyle Dubas to be their next General Manager. Subsequent to that, Dubas promoted Brandon Pridham to be one of his Assistant General Managers and hired Laurence Gilman as a second one. The chatter likes both hires, as Pridham and Gilman are both sharp thinkers who know how to exploit the rules.
So, yes, I’m going to talk myself into the possibility that they might—just might—consider a device that has mostly lapsed into disuse. And I’ll make a case here: the Leafs should look at employing offer sheets in order to improve their team.
What is an offer sheet?
As you might have heard, at the end of their contracts, some NHL players become “restricted free agents” and some become “unrestricted free agents”. There are variations on these that we don’t have to worry about right now). Unrestricted free agents (UFAs), like Patrick Marleau was last summer, are completely free to sign with any team they wish after noon on July 1st. The UFA’s prior team has no rights over them at that point and gets no compensation if they leave. All they can do is waive a sad goodbye at the airport.
Restricted free agents (RFAs) are free to negotiate with any team if they go unsigned after July 1st, but there are conditions. If the RFA and another team reach an agreement, they don’t sign a contract right away. They sign what’s called an “offer sheet”, which contains the same essential info a contract would. Then the RFA’s prior team has a choice to make.
They can match the offer sheet—that is, they sign the player on exactly the same terms laid out in the offer sheet—and that becomes a binding contract with the player. Or the team can let the player go and accept draft picks as compensation. The draft picks vary depending on how big the contract is. If a team does not have the cap room to match the offer sheet, then all they can do is accept the compensation.
Why are these significant?
RFA status is sort of a halfway house between the initial phase for a drafted prospect, where they have very little leverage and can only sign with one team, and total free agency, where they can go wherever they want. The timing is based on a combination of age and experience that we won’t worry about because Cap Friendly can tell you who’s an RFA and who isn’t. But the result is that the players who reach restricted free agency tend to be between 20 and 27 years of age, whereas UFAs tend to be 27 or older.
Knowing what we do about aging curves, our best guess as to the prime period for forwards is in the age 24-26 range, with a very gradual decline to about 32 and then a sharpening drop-off. Defence is a little more ambiguous and goaltending is a crapshoot, but by and large you’d expect players in their 20s to be better than in their 30s. RFA players—at least the good ones—are therefore getting you better years of a player’s career than a UFA deal usually will.
RFA deals tend to be among the most valuable contracts in the NHL, for the prime reason and for one other: nobody uses offer sheets anymore. (More on that in a bit.) The result is that while RFA players theoretically have a lot of leverage, in practice their options are to sign with the team that already has them, to go to the KHL, or to sit at home and wait. Every year, some RFAs wait into September or October and almost invariably, they wind up signing a bargain contract. Recent examples include Hampus Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, all of whom provide tremendous value to their teams.
Because teams have so much leverage in these negotiations, the reality is that really high-end players in their early-to-mid-20s are extremely difficult to acquire, because teams virtually never lose these players if they really want to hold onto them. To add high-end, prime-age players, you either have to draft them, pay a premium in a trade, absolutely swindle somebody in a trade, or get very lucky with a late bloomer.
Or sign one of them to an offer sheet.
What does this have to do with the Leafs?
The Leafs basically have the core of the team they are going to attempt to win a championship with. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and Nazem Kadri are all at least four years away from unrestricted free agency and are all at or approaching their peak. The Leafs, ideally, would like to add an elite right-shooting defenceman who will be good immediately, so that the Leafs can try to contend now.
Even if you haven’t read the last section, Leaf fans probably know the problems involved in making that RHD upgrade. We’re constantly trying to gin up three-quarters-for-a-loonie trades for Dougie Hamilton and annoying other fanbases as we do it. These trades are, needless to say, prohibitively unlikely. Maybe you’re among those who want to wait for next summer and drop a bank on Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty if they become available, but that implies they’d reach unrestricted free agency and they’d want to sign here. It’s an awful lot to hang your hat on. And beyond that, do you want to win the bidding war for John Carlson?
By contrast, here are some quality right-shooting defencemen poised to reach RFA status this summer: Jacob Trouba (WPG), Matt Dumba (MIN), Brandon Montour (ANA),
Noah Hanifin (OOPS), Colin Miller (VGK), and Cody Ceci (just kidding). Any of those five players would likely slot in on our top pair on arrival. Now, there’s some maneuvering to be done in terms of finding a team you don’t think is going to match, whether for budget reasons (Carolina?) or for cap ones (Minnesota?), and the player has to choose to sign the offer sheet (remember when Trouba demanded a trade out of Winnipeg?) But at the least it’s an avenue that we very much should explore.
Someone wrote on a recent article that they wanted Dubas to add a top-pair RD without giving up Marner or Nylander in a trade. That’s a big ask, but this way of doing it is definitely a more plausible method than getting Seth Jones for Kapanen and a second.
So why don’t teams do this?
No NHL player has signed an offer sheet in over five years; the last time, and only time since the current CBA went into force, was when the Calgary Flames offer-sheeted Colorado’s Ryan O’Reilly. The Avs matched (and thereby messed up a potentially hilarious opportunity), and that’s been it ever since. Maybe teams have been sending out offer sheets and we just haven’t heard about it, but the fact there have been zero signings despite some pretty protracted RFA negotiations suggests it’s probably not happening much, if at all.
There are two reasons usually cited for why nobody bothers with offer sheets: cost and retaliation. Let’s address them in turn.
The compensation cost in draft picks is potentially high, and yet it’s perhaps not as high as you might think. The lovely people at Cap Friendly have a calculator for this stuff. You could sign any RFA to an offer sheet at $8.1M per year for five years, and you would have to give up a first, a second, and a third, which is what Vegas just paid in a trade for Playoff Healthy Scratch Tomas Tatar. If you’re acquiring a player who’s worth anything close to $8.1M, and you’re expecting to be a playoff team, those three picks are really not any kind of prohibitive cost. (It’s worth noting you have to use your own draft picks as compensation; you can’t trade for other teams’ and use those.) If the Leafs can deal out 1 + 2 + 3 to stabilize their top pair, they should do that in a heartbeat, given those picks are likely going to fall in the 20s, 50s, and 80s. Hell, we wouldn’t even have to lose Kapanen or Johnsson!
The sticker shock of making a move like this tends to be worse than the actual value surrendered. The Leafs traded a (late) first and a second for Frederik Andersen and then extended him for five years at $5M when he arrived; the compensation had they signed him to that for an offer sheet would have been a first and a third. The Leafs were smart to deal the Penguins’ first rather than their own in the trade, but the point is that the costs really aren’t that different from the trade market...and the Leafs are now going to be picking late.
The retaliation thing is wildly overblown. It combines the idea that the team we offer sheet is going to offer sheet our players in turn (which is basically not a real problem), and that other GMs would refuse to trade with us (which is totally imaginary). Trust me, I looked at this in great detail.
There have been eight offer sheets since 2005. Exactly one of them provoked another offer sheet, and it was a lame response; the opposing GM tried to overpay offer-sheeting a depth player and the home team matched easily. No GM has suffered any apparent consequences at all in terms of the trade market; all the ones who continued in their jobs made numerous trades with other teams, and some of them even traded with the GMs whose players they signed to offer sheets.
But what about the Big Three?
Leaf fans are understandably scared, though, because Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner are all approaching RFA status. I would be surprised if any team we offer-sheeted a player away from would turn around and drop a huge amount of money on one of those players, because otherwise they would likely have matched our deal. But also: if the Leafs want to, they can extend all three players before they actually reach RFA status, and thus before they become eligible for an offer sheet. Extend William Nylander within the next month and extend Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, if not this summer, before July 1st of next year. And then...what are we afraid of? Our core would be set. If some embittered GM wants to try and come back at us by offer-sheeting Carl Grundstrom in a couple of years, well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
The truth is, the NHL is an old boys’ club that works to suppress player salaries, and teams have let that push them away from doing anything in their power to win. The fact may well be that no team is sufficiently interested in doing everything in its power to win that it’s willing to open the offer sheet box. Because that would definitely inflate player contracts.
But if we choose to believe in the desire to win: there are numerous teams that would be better off having signed Hampus Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau, or Nikita Kucherov. There are many other examples of RFA players, like Colton Parayko last summer, that at least would have been available for an offer sheet. That doesn’t mean that this is a miracle tool or that it should be used carelessly, but adding the last key core piece without subtracting from the roster should absolutely be on the table.
Dubas, Pridham, and Gilman are all smart men who know how to exploit the rules to their advantage. They’re also slightly less traditional front office executives (none of them ever played professional hockey.) If ever there were a group poised to think outside the box, it ought to be this one. And if ever there were a team that should be exploring offer sheets, the Leafs—with their abundant resources, near-contending core, and opening window—ought to be that team.
I know, I know, they probably won’t do it.