On the ice, hockey players are expected to be fearless. They go to the hard areas, win board battles, and if need be, they push the rules. There is regular chirping, subtle slashes, and in some cases, outright goon-ery. It’s part of the game, and the expectation is that all players participate to one degree or another.
Younger bodies bring in fresh legs and cheaper contracts. At some point, older players can’t keep up and find themselves without a playing role in a game that is likely the only way of life that they have ever known. A good number of retirees find themselves in management once their playing days are over. Who better to mold the future of a hockey club’s front office than someone who has been through the wars and understands what it takes to be successful.
So, an “Old Boys Club” is perpetuated. But something happens to these gentlemen between their time on the ice and their becoming ensconced in the executive suite. While teams throw everything that they have at each other on the ice, off the ice, in the name of congeniality, they treat each other like the best of friends.
Not necessarily in all situations, though. When it comes to moving players, both teams are looking for a competitive advantage, or at worst, a win-win hockey trade. But in the one situation where team leadership could step up and give their bitterest rival a cup check —the offer sheet — there’s hardly ever a peep.
The offer sheet. It’s the one sanctioned tool where a general manager can proactively, unilaterally interfere with the operations of any other team in the league. But after years of cutthroat competition, when it comes to offer sheets, everyone seems to be battling for the Executive Lady Byng Trophy.
Why isn’t the offer sheet used more often? In addition to concerns about retaliation, there could also be some issues with the amount and type of compensation. From a player’s perspective, there may also be concerns about lingering retribution if they sign an offer sheet, only to have that offer matched by their original club. Some attribute the P.K. Subban and Shea Weber trade to lingering resentment over the offer sheet that Weber signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. There are other examples.
With the Montreal Canadiens signing Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet (which the Carolina Hurricanes matched), there is some hope that teams are starting to recognize the value of this underused tool. This move was mostly panned by hockey insiders. After all, who wouldn’t take Aho at a $8.454 million cap hit, even with a major cash hit in the first 12 months?
Offer sheet compensation has been set for 2019/20— Gord Miller (@GMillerTSN) May 3, 2019
$1,395,053 or below: None
$4,227,438-$6,341,152: 1st, 3rd
$6,341,153-$8,454,871: 1st, 2nd, 3rd
2 1sts , 2nd, 3rd
$10,568,590+: 4 1sts
I would argue that this was a great offer for Montreal and a great offer for Aho. For Montreal, there really wasn’t much to lose. The first-round pick was the only potential big loss, but if Aho was added to the lineup, that would likely have been a late pick in the 2020 draft. Beyond that, the Canadiens are well-stocked with picks from prior trades. In addition, Montreal is a big-market team, throwing money around against a relatively weak small-market team.
For Aho, this was an even better deal. Not only is the new contract front-loaded with over $21 million in cash due within the first 12 months of signing, but at a five-year term, it takes him to free agency at the age of 26. That leaves Aho with maximum leverage to sign a seven or eight-year unrestricted free agent deal in his prime, and with five more years of cap expansion. A maximum contract takes him to age 34, so there will be no need to bury any major aging curve into that deal.
The cost to the Canadiens is a bit of time to negotiate the deal and any residual loss of league-wide goodwill. Potential upside with no substantive downside. Aho (and his agent) get a big, early payday on a term that likely leads to better lifetime earnings. Carolina could have held a grudge against their young franchise player, or they could kiss and make up. I, along with most of #HockeyTwitter, wagered on the latter — and we were right. After all, business is just business.
These types of big name offer sheets steal headlines, but the way I read it, there is an untapped side to the offer sheet that doesn’t receive the attention that it deserves. A few examples should help.
First off, there’s one that has been mentioned in the media, but hasn’t come to anything as of yet. Nikita Gusev signed a one-year entry level contract with the Vegas Golden Knights last April, but because he is 26, he became a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season.
Gusev is a solid offer sheet candidate for several reasons, but there is also some risk. On the plus side, Vegas has 20 players on the current roster, and still needs to add two defenders and a backup netminder. With those negotiations on the table, per CapFriendly, they are already over the cap with their existing contracts. Gusev is asking for two years at $4 million, which is well above the suspected Vegas offer of $2 million for two years.
If a team likes Gusev at that price (he has scored more than a point per game in the KHL for the last three years), an offer sheet at $4 million costs the team their second-round pick in the next draft. Twenty-three teams could do that deal. The Dallas Stars are not one of those teams, but an organization looking for a low-cost, high-upside move, any of those 23 teams could take advantage of the Golden Knights’ cap issues for significantly less than trade-value.
Of more interest to the Stars might be current Edmonton Oilers winger Jesse Puljujarvi.
Puljujarvi has requested a trade, but new GM Ken Holland has made it clear that getting rid of the unhappy former first-round pick isn’t high on his priority list. “I’m not giving a player away because they’re unhappy. No way. If I trade any player I have to get fair value or I’m not doing it. I’m not trading a player to get him out of my hair.”
Per contract projections from EvolvingWild, a two-year deal with Puljujarvi should run just under $1.4 million per year, and given the current relationship between the Oilers and their player, that would slide in nicely just under the “no compensation” level for offer sheets. In short, there is the potential to get Puljujarvi merely by taking over payments.
The likelihood of this happening in Dallas is extremely thin, especially given GM Jim Nill’s existing relationship with Ken Holland. Nonetheless, there is a contract there that they could pair with a new deal for Jason Dickinson while still keep everything under the cap. It would require a few season-starting assignments to Cedar Park and long-term injured reserve for Martin Hanzal, but those are pretty standard requirements for any team.
Beyond that, Puljujarvi probably doesn’t want to sign an offer sheet where there is any chance that Edmonton might match. Contract negotiations are already pretty poisonous. That means that a team that wants him would likely need to overpay a bit. That turns free into costing a third-round pick, but if they like the player, that is still a pretty low cost.
Finally, there is the curious case of Julius Honka. At this point, you’d have to do some serious digging to find anybody who thinks that Honka has a future with the Stars. Still, the team is holding out for a trade where they can get some kind of value for the 2014 first-round pick.
Frankly, puck-moving right shot defenders do come at a premium. However, any deal that Honka signs, regardless of length, is going to be under the “no compensation” limit for an offer sheet. There is little chance that Dallas matches the offer, since a matched offer sheet comes with a one year no-trade stipulation.
Honka’s there for the taking as a restricted free agent, and by going the offer sheet route, he has the ability to pick a team where the playing style and the depth chart brings a chance to both play and increase his value. An offer sheet contract should get him to the point where he has arbitration rights, and with playing time, he might actually get some comparables that haven’t spent the last season as a healthy scratch.
If a team wants Honka, why trade? Extend an offer sheet with something reasonable and show him a way to playing time. Done deal.
Most discussions of offer sheets relate to star players, with multiple picks involved as compensation. These are high-risk deals, and few teams are willing to give up one of their top players, even for a bevy of future high picks. On the other hand, it is a rare star player that is interested in rolling the dice with an offer sheet, especially since the offer will likely be matched.
That said, with the assistance of Montreal, Aho was able to get a player-friendly deal out of the Carolina Hurricanes. Without the offer sheet, that deal would likely have been longer and with less upfront money. Aho negotiated his contract with a team that viewed him as a bonus pickup, so a bit more softball than hardball.
At the lower end of the compensation, there are opportunities for teams to pick up players with known NHL capabilities. Creative management teams can take advantage of cash or cap-strapped opponents. Likewise, restricted free agents and their representatives have unexplored openings where they can help develop more player-friendly contracts.
Of course, lurking in the background there is always the power struggle between management and player. Opening up the spigot on the offer sheet is not only a way to increase team-versus-team competition, but it does so by loosening the grip that an incumbent team has over its restricted free agents. It also adds some variables to the business model, and it is the rare owner who wants to complicate anything.
The salary cap does negate most of the financial downside, so changing the dynamics of restricted free agency doesn’t do much beyond rearranging deck chairs. Nonetheless, releasing even a bit of chaos is not for the faint of heart, and it will require a bit of gutsy strength to make the first few moves.
That likely won’t happen this year, but in the foreseeable future team executives will recognize that going to the hard places and winning board battles aren’t just winning qualities on the ice. An off-ice advantage can and does improve a team, and the offer sheet is one area where an advantage can be gained for an intelligent, aggressive front office. If players can shake hands after a brutal seven-game series, executives surely can respect a hard-fought contract battle.