An offer sheet for you and you and… (photo: kurichan+ / flickr cc)
Offer sheets are nothing new to the game, but why don’t we see them used more regularly by the league’s General Mangers? It’s something Cory Schneider brought up during a post-practice scrum on Monday. Asked to comment on Red Wings executive Jim Devellano’s comparison of players to cattle and owners to ranchers, Schneider was more interested in talking about Devellano’s comments that managers operated under an unspoken rule – or a gentleman’s agreement – that they wouldn’t target each other’s restricted free agents.
"I think the issue that caught my attention more was the potential collusion on offer sheets. In their offer of no free agency for 10 years and no arbitration, we asked them point-blank in a meeting I was at: ‘How do guys move or how do guys earn value or gain value on their contracts?’ Their first response was: ‘Well, there are still offer sheets out there.’
“When you make a comment like his, it makes it seem like they are artificially lowering the market and refusing offers on offer sheets because it’s just something you don’t do. I don’t think it’s enough to go on just from what he says but I’m sure the players and the union feel there absolutely is some sort of handshake agreement, which I think you could argue is collusion.”
Schneider went on to ask, "How many offer sheets have their been?" All the assembled reporters were dumbfounded as to the answer, but we knew it wasn’t many.
The answer is seven.
Seven offer sheets over seven years. Three of them, you may remember, involved the Canucks. The very first offer sheet extended under the expired CBA was to Ryan Kesler. At the time, Dave Nonis was said to be furious, but begrudgingly he matched the contract. Kesler, of course, has been full value for the money paid to him since then.
It was the first offer sheet since Carolina tried to pry Sergei Federov away from Detroit in 1998 and the first to open a small window into the a world of ‘what ifs’ for players looking at their second contracts.
The coverage at the time didn’t suggest that this would continue to be a rare thing. The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch:
When Clarke signed Canucks centre Ryan Kesler to a one-year, $1.9-million offer sheet earlier this month, he broke the unwritten rule among GMs not to touch restricted free agents.
That moved forced Vancouver to more than triple the $600,000 salary Kesler pulled down last season.
Clarke said somebody had to be the first and he’d do it again.
"I felt like signing Kesler was the right deal for us and that means we were willing to pay more," said Clarke. "We wanted to get him signed and then we would have looked at a longer-term, three-year deal down the road. We had the money to do it, so we did it."
Of course, Garrioch is intimating that in offering a contract to Kesler, Philadelphia GM Bobby Clark had broken a code. But Clarke thought this might be a road that would be travelled again.
The next summer, we saw two offer sheets, again to players coming off their first contracts: Tomas Vanek and Dustin Penner. Both contracts were offered by the Oilers, with the offer to Penner being successful. Who knew that Kevin Lowe would be some sort of iconoclast.
At the time, Oilers GM Lowe came in for some criticism for his attempted raid on Buffalo:
Lowe countered in his new conference on Friday by stating that: “I think it was rather juvenile on their part.
“It’s a business. It was right for the Oilers and obviously right for the Sabres.”
Lowe maintains he had calls from other managers supporting the “bold move.”
“I know that wasn’t the case in Buffalo, but we have to do what’s best for the Edmonton Oilers,” he said. “We’re not where the Sabres were last season. We’re a team that had to get better.”
Anaheim’s Brian Burke would vent his fury about the Penner signing, a contract he declined to match.
“We don’t believe these salaries make sense,” Anaheim general manager Brian Burke said on a conference call. “If I believe these salaries don’t make sense and I match then I’m just as dumb as the team that extended the offer.”
Burke was incensed by the terms and amount of last week’s offer, and at the time he had especially harsh words for Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, saying, “Edmonton has offered a mostly inflated salary for a player, and I think it’s an act of desperation for a general manager who is fighting to keep his job.”
Note that Burke was upset about the inflationary pressure he knew Penner’s new contract would create, not the act of making the offer. Yet, it seems he was careful not to suggest that RFA offers were prohibited under some sort of gentleman’s agreement. Were his words of frustration chosen wisely?
Another year went by, and there was a new GM on the scene with eyes on a restricted free agent. Mike Gillis had been hired in April of 2008 and was expected to play the manager’s role like the outsider he so clearly was. He’d been a player agent for most of his post-playing career and had exploited the pre-2004 CBA as well as anyone. That summer, he chose the Blues’ David Backes as his target.
The Blues matched the offer to Backes but they one-upped every other frenzied reaction that had been spoken out against RFA offers: GM Larry Pleau turned around and made an offer to the Canucks’ own RFA, Steve Bernier. It was a tit for tat that didn’t upset Gillis, at least not publicly.
Since the Canucks v Blues battle, there have been just two other offer sheets. That’s four years, and next to no interest in signing RFAs. Two summers ago the Sharks tried to pry Nik Hjallmarsson from Chicago; then there was the Shea Weber saga this summer. The Sharks’ move was motivated by Chicago’s well-documented, post-Stanley Cup cap problems. Weber was the guy to get, a player who didn’t seem to want to stay with the cash-strapped Predators, and was also perceived to be of enormous value to, well, everyone.
But what about Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Luke Schenn, Ryan Callahan, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Okposo, Brandon Dubinsky and Zach Bogosian in 2011? Every single one of these players were RFAs going into the off-season, but their teams chose to keep them around.
A year earlier, though, a whole class of players were still unsigned in late August. Carey Price, Marc Staal, Bobby Ryan, Steve Downie, Chris Stewart, James Neal, Peter Mueller, Sam Gagner and NIc Bergfors were all there for the taking.
Even NHL.com’s Dan Rosen was wondering if they would see an offer sheet or two thrown out:
Nobody is predicting that any of the 9 players we’re about to mention will sign with another team, but there’s always a chance and then we would have a much bigger story. Either way, here is a list of restricted free agents that are young, talented, marketable and waiting.
That’s delicately worded, but still correct. Still, it seems amazing that none of these players saw a sniff of an offer from another team. I mean, we’re talking about generational talents like Stamkos and Doughty!
If we return to what Schneider said, that Devellano’s statement suggests management is trying to suppress salaries, it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t be. Since the expansion of free agency (beginning twenty or so years ago), players have used salary escalation to their advantage. After all there have always been managers willing to spend more than others.
If, as suggested by Schneider, that pattern has been cut off, no wonder the players would be upset. A labour relationshp exists in the NHL, whether the owners like it or not, and there are rules that they have to abide by. Being a certified trade union in the USA grants the NHLPA rights under these rules, among which are rules that govern making agreements that control the right to trade.
Owners can’t simply say they are going to cap wages for particular types of players, there has to be an agreement with those same players. That’s Schneider’s point, and why he was so frustrated to hear Devellano’s comments. It’s classic "speaking out of both sides of one’s mouth" and it’s no surprise that Devellano was fined for his comments.
The owners want to control their costs; they want the players to accept those controls. The players don’t really trust the owners and that’s where we are at. And the fun times are guaranteed to continue.