One of the most intriguing tools in a general manager’s toolbox rarely gets used: the offer sheet.
An offer sheet is the only way to sign another team’s restricted free agents and can only be tendered after that player has received and rejected a qualifying offer from their current team. After a player signs an offer sheet, their current team has the option to match the offer or accept a compensation package of picks from the team that signed him.
In the last twenty years, there have been just eight offer sheets in the NHL, with all but one of them getting matched by the player’s original team. Oddly enough, the Canucks are involved in an above-average percentage of those offer sheets. The Philadelphia Flyers signed Ryan Kesler to an offer sheet back in 2006. Then, in 2008, the Canucks and St. Louis Blues traded offer sheets for David Backes and Steve Bernier, with many suspecting the offer sheet for Bernier was retaliatory for the Canucks offer sheet for Backes.
There are many reasons why we don’t see more offer sheets. One is that GMs have a sort of gentleman’s agreement not to use them, a soft form of collusion where everyone generally agrees to stay away from another team’s restricted free agents. To sign a player to an offer sheet is considered unsporting, poisoning the well for future deals with that particular GM.
An offer sheet takes the negotiating power away from that GM, forcing them to match a deal they might not want to sign or lose the player. Sure, the team gets draft picks as compensation, but for a team trying to make the playoffs and win a Cup, keeping an effective player in the present is usually preferable to draft picks.
In addition, because an offer sheet is generally above typical market value for a player — it has to be to entice the player to sign it in the first place — that can lead to an inflated market. Other RFAs can point to that contract in negotiations and use it as a barometer in their own negotiations. Now the offer sheet hasn’t just upset one GM, but GMs around the league.
Another reason we don’t see many offer sheets is that they’re almost always matched by the other team. More often than not, signing an offer sheet means you’re risking a relationship with a rival GM and getting nothing in return. That’s a losing proposition.
Then there’s the issue of compensation. Often, the price paid in picks is a little too rich for some teams, particularly when you get into the upper range of cap hits. That compensation can be as high as four first-round picks. For the right player, that might make sense, but that’s still a heavy price to pay, particularly if you’re a team that might not make the playoffs, meaning one or more of those picks could be a lottery pick at the top of the draft.
That’s a whole lot of reasons why offer sheets don’t happen, but here’s one good reason why they should happen more often: you can get very good, established players that would otherwise be unavailable to you at the cost of draft picks with a lower projected value.
The NHL released the compensation limits for offer sheets on Friday — they change every year based on average salaries around the league — and they might make certain offer sheets awfully tempting.
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
The compensation limit is calculated based on the length of the contract or five years, whichever is shorter.
Here’s an example: if you sign a player to an offer sheet with an average annual value of $6.25 million over seven years, the compensation won’t be first and third-round picks. Instead, the total value of the contract — $43.75 million — would be divided by five years, bumping it all the way up to $8.75 million, necessitating a compensation package of two firsts, a second, and a third.
Some of the big-name RFAs are certainly tempting: Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski — those are all players that would have an immediate and massive impact on the Canucks. They’d also have an immediate and massive impact on the Canucks’ draft picks.
It’s easy to imagine all of those players commanding an offer sheet that edges into the top category, costing the Canucks four first-round picks if the offer isn’t matched. A seven-year contract worth $7.55 million per year would be all it takes to reach that highest level of compensation.
In any case, it seems exceedingly likely that those top tier players would have pretty much any offer sheet matched, making it a moot point. As tempting as that top tier may seem, it’s safe to say they’re out of reach.
What’s more intriguing is the lower ends of the scale. There are a number of teams in potential cap trouble that could be vulnerable to an offer sheet on some of their lower-tier RFAs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Winnipeg Jets are a few clear examples of teams in salary cap trouble.
The Leafs have to find room for Marner’s sure-to-be hefty contract at the same time that Auston Matthews’ raise kicks in, and have several other free agents to resign with few contracts coming off the books. The Lightning need to fit Brayden Point’s new contract under the cap. The Jets need new contracts for Laine, Trouba, and Kyle Connor.
The Leafs are the most intriguing of those teams, with three other restricted free agents to re-sign beyond Marner. The two that could be targets for an offer sheet are Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
Kapanen and Johnsson had very similar statistics this season: both scored 20 goals, with Kapanen tallying 44 points and Johnsson tallying 43 in five fewer games. Kapanen is 22, while Johnsson is 24, so Kapanen arguably has the most potential of the two, but either would be an upgrade for the Canucks’ top-six forward corps.
Evolving Hockey’s contract projection model predicts that Johnsson will sign a four-year deal worth around $3.7 million per year. The same model suggests Kapanen will get a two-year bridge deal worth around $2.2 million per year, but a five-year deal that buys up UFA years bumps that up to around $4.15 million per year.
What immediately jumps out is that both those projections fit into a comfortable area of compensation when it comes to offer sheets: a second-round pick.
If the Canucks want to gamble that one of Kapanen or Johnsson could be a first or second-line winger in the future, a second-round pick would be a small price to pay. The Canucks could conceivably offer an overpayment of up to $4.227 million per year on a five-year deal to either forward, which would put the Leafs in a very tough spot with their salary cap.
Is it likely to happen? Probably not. Benning seems unlikely to be the GM to break the gentleman’s agreement to avoid offer sheets and enjoys a friendly relationship with GMs around the league. He and Kyle Dubas made a friendly deal in the Josh Leivo trade, and it’s not really in Benning’s character to make that type of move in return.
That said, Benning is also on the hot seat heading into the final year of his contract after missing the playoffs in four-straight seasons. Desperate times call for desperate measures and an offer sheet might be less damaging than some other types of desperation moves, like big contracts for unrestricted free agents on July 1st. Aiming for Johnsson or Kapanen would likely be a much cheaper way to upgrade the top-six than unrestricted free agency.