If the Vegas Golden Knights are to keep the promise of making the playoffs by year three and winning the Stanley Cup in year six a lot is going to have to go right.
They’ll have to draft incredibly well, starting with the three first round picks they selected in Chicago in late June. They’ll have to have found a few diamonds in the rough in the Expansion Draft, and they’ll probably have to make a few shrew moves in free agency and/or fleece a team or two in trades.
It’s a lot to ask, and it’s understandable for Golden Knights fans to be skeptical. Any person can look down the list of free agents, take a look at recent trade history, and even look at the Entry Draft outside of the top pick and say, there’s just not enough there to take a team from good to great, and certainly not anything on the market to take a team from great to elite. So it’s going to take something special to make the mantra a reality.
But there is one way that George McPhee could strike it rich without using the draft, unrestricted free agency, or fleecing someone in a trade, and it’s something that’s been widely unused in the NHL over the past decade.
One thing a few different NHL executives agree on: Offer sheets are coming. Cam Fowler, Martin Jones, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and (Carey) Price are gone from next year’s unrestricted class. “There simply are not enough impact players available in free agency,” one said. “If you need to improve your team — and fast — it’s going to be your best option.” –Elliotte Friedman, Sportsnet.ca
Offer sheets means, restricted free agency, a market untapped since 2013, and one that hasn’t seen a player change teams since 2007. First, let’s explain how it works, and why teams have been so reluctant in the past.
Most fans are used to unrestricted free agency (UFA), where a player is free to sign wherever he wishes. Teams make offers, he picks the best one for him, and he becomes a member of the new team. The old team gets nothing in return.
Restricted free agency is much different. When a player is an RFA his rights are still technically owned by his current team. There are plenty of options of how the players next contract will be agreed upon, but that’s for another day. In restricted free agency, other teams are able to make an offer to a player, and essentially steal him away. Let me explain using a current example in RFA from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Connor Brown. (He’s good, and young, and the Golden Knights would love to have him, but don’t worry about that right now)
Brown and the Maple Leafs are currently discussing an extension which would keep him in Toronto, but until that happens every team in the NHL has the ability to send Brown an “offer sheet.” An offer sheet is essentially a standard contract, but because the player is an RFA, a few things must happen before he can sign it and change teams.
Using the example, say the Golden Knights decide to send an offer sheet to Connor Brown for a four year deal worth $16M. Unlike unrestricted free agency, the Maple Leafs would be shown the full details of the contract. They then have two choices. They can match the contract, and Brown would stay a Leaf for four years at $16M, or they can decline and Brown would become a Golden Knight.
Sounds too good to be true, right? It is. In the event an RFA accepts an offer sheet and changes teams, there is a predetermined compensation in the form of draft picks that is sent from the new team to the old team. Using the chart below, the Golden Knights would owe the Leafs a 1st and a 3rd round pick for signing Brown.
|Contract Annual Average Value (AAV)||Compensation|
|$1,295,571 or less||None|
|$1,295,571 to $1,962,968||3rd Round Pick|
|$1,962,968 to $3,925,975||2nd Round Pick|
|$3,925,975 to $5,888,960||1st and 3rd Round Picks|
|$5,888,960 to $7,851,948||1st, 2nd, and 3rd Round Picks|
|$7,851,948 to $9,814,935||Two 1sts, one 2nd, and one 3rd Round Picks|
|Over $9,814,935||Four 1st Round Picks|
Of course, if the Golden Knights made the offer $15.7M over four years, rather than $16M, they would only owe a 2nd round pick. But that’s just part of the intricate game of restricted free agency.
So you see, there’s a major cost to make a deal like this happen, but it can make sense in many cases, especially for a team that has seven 2nd round picks over the next three years.
The last player to be sent an offer sheet in the NHL is Ryan O’Reilly in 2013. Colorado matched it, and he stayed there. Shea Weber was sent an offer sheet by Philadelphia in 2012, Nashville signed the 14-year $110M deal and he stayed. Dustin Penner, in 2007, was the last player to accept an offer sheet. He went from Anaheim to Edmonton on a contract of 5 years $21.5M and the Oilers gave up their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd picks in 2008 to make it happen.
As of this moment, Jack Eichel, Elias Lindholm, Vladislav Namestnikov, Tomas Hertl, Matt Dumba, William Nylander, and many more very good players are set to become RFAs next year. In 2019, you can add Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine to the list.
Now, are the Golden Knights going to be able to steal Eichel, Matthews, Laine, or anyone else on that list? Definitely not, but realistically, anyone worth less than $3.925M per year (and that number goes up every season) may be worth serious consideration. As the executive told Friedman, there just aren’t enough good players out there in unrestricted free agency.
Offer sheets are coming he said, and if there’s no team in the NHL more set up in terms of future draft picks and cap room to start throwing them out there. Vegas may have high hopes for Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Erik Brannstrom, and whoever they end up getting with the 1st round picks in 2018, 2019, and 2020, but they are going to have to find more elite players, and restricted free agency may be the untapped market where they find them.