Photo Credit: Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports
Late last week Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman appeared on the Oilers Now radio show with Bob Stauffer and shared a scintillating anecdote about the Mike Gillis-era Vancouver Canucks considering an aggressive offer sheet on reigning Art Ross winner and current Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn, a local kid, and former BCHL standout, during the summer of 2012.
It’s an explosive story and for a variety of reasons. Let’s unpack Freidman’s comments and some of the context that makes it so interesting after the jump.
Here is the transcription of Friedman’s relevant quotes courtesy Chris Nichols, the hockey blogosphere’s version of Varys, of todaysslapshot.com:
But here’s a story I will tell you. Right before the last lockout in 2013, the Vancouver Canucks were considering putting an offer sheet on for Jamie Benn. And this is a story I worked on for a long time, trying to find out exactly what they were trying to do. I’ve never proven it, but my guesstimate is it’s this – that they were looking at a one-year deal in the $7-7.5 million range.
And what that meant is that Dallas was going to have to match it for like three years. They were simply going to have to go out and until he became an unrestricted free agent, they were going to have to match it every year. And that was going to be about three years.
At the end of the day, the Canucks didn’t do it for two reasons. No. 1, they didn’t know what the new rules were going to be in the CBA, so that was one. And the second reason was they also thought they would match it – Dallas would. And all of the sudden, you’d be looking at every guy and every guy was going to be going up. And you’re not going to make that effort unless you’re getting the player.
So I look at the situation and I say, ‘What kind of offer sheet are they going to be able to make where you actually might look at it and say Boston won’t match.’ I don’t think teams are really going to do it unless they think Boston isn’t going to match.
Here are seven things about this anecdote that are fun to think about.
1. Peak Gillis
Though the notion of tendering Benn a one-year, $7 million-plus offer sheet was apparently only discussed and bandied about by the Canucks – obviously the club ultimately opted against actually making such a maneuver before the Stars locked up Benn with a long-term extension in September of 2012 – this story, if true, is still a classic example of how the Gillis-era Canucks operated.
Gillis was never afraid to use the Canucks’ relatively deeper pockets to his advantage during his Vancouver tenure, whether it was taking on Brad Lukowich’s expensive NHL contract as the price of acquiring Christian Ehrhoff, or taking back significant term (unwisely) in order to gamble on pieces like David Booth and Keith Ballard. It was something of a hallmark of Gillis’ player acquisition strategy.
Obviously Gillis wasn’t shy about tendering offer sheets to restricted players either. In his early years as a general manager you may recall that the Canucks signed David Backes to a lucrative, three-year offer sheet and did so during the five day window between July 1 and the deadline for teams to file for team-elected salary arbitration. He’s the only general manager to attempt a move like this since the introduction of the NHL salary cap.
As the years went on, the former player agent seemed to abandon the offer sheet as a realistic player acquisition tool (more on this in a moment). Even Friedman’s story doesn’t change that characterization. What Friedman is describing – a one-year offer sheet – would represent a highly self-conscious maneuver, one that’s fully aware of how rare it is for an offer sheet tendered to a star-caliber player to prove effective at actually landing that star player.
That the Gillis-era Canucks were playing around with creative ways to use an offer sheet – essentially taking a weapon in the arsenal of the collective bargaining agreement, and stretching it to it’s most ruthless, logical conclusion – is fun and very much in character.
2. Luongo Context
Though it’s unsaid by Friedman, we’re left to wonder what impact Roberto Luongo’s status may have had on the club’s internal calculations regarding a Benn offer sheet.
You’ll recall that the Canucks were widely expected to trade a goaltender at the 2012 NHL entry draft, but Gillis and company instead opted to hang on to both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo. It obviously didn’t work out for them.
This is the context in which the summer of 2012 unfolds.
Even as Gillis was optimistically predicting that a trade market for his star goaltender would congeal late in the summer (he wasn’t totally incorrect about late-summer trades, seeing as how Rick Nash moved in the dog days of the off-season, but he was wrong about interest in Luongo), he was apparently considering multiple offer sheet options.
We have to wonder though, whether or not the club’s reluctance to make additional enemies – particularly when they were already between a rock and a hard place in goal – had an impact on the club’s decision not to mess with the Stars’ books.
3. Shea Weber Context
Benn wasn’t the only player the Canucks were considering an offer sheet for during the summer of 2013. In fact the club seemed to really want to tender Shea Weber an offer sheet, and may have, but the player wanted to sign a long-term deal under the rules of the previous CBA.
The Jason Botchford article in which he reports that the Canucks wanted to tender Weber a 1-year, $14 million offer sheet no longer exists on the Vancouver Province webpage, but I found it in an old Philadelphia Flyers press clippings package. Here’s the relevant passage:
The Canucks discussed with Weber the idea of a one-year, $14-million
deal. It included a $1-million salary and a $13-million signing bonus. It was
a risky plan but the Canucks believed it was the only contract that could
potentially land the player. If Weber were to ever have signed such a deal,
and the Predators didn’t match, the Canucks would have given up four firstround
draft choices. If the Predators did match, Weber was scheduled to
become an unrestricted free agent in one year.
But that was a non-starter from Weber’s side, because if he signed a oneyear
offer sheet he wouldn’t be able to sign an extension until Jan. 1, long
after the current CBA expires on Sept. 15.
“I got the sense he wanted to take advantage of the current rules in place
financially and he did that. And he’s entitled to do that,” Gillis said.
4. The One-Year Offer Sheet
What does Botchford’s report about the Canucks’ offer sheet plan for Weber have in common with Friedman’s anecdote about their offer sheet plan for Benn? The length, obviously.
Taken together, these two stories imply several very interesting assumptions that the Gillis-era Canucks made about the efficacy of offer sheets and the value of young, star players.
Essentially it would seem that the Backes/Steve Bernier experience taught the Canucks that offer sheets don’t really work, particularly if they’re of the multi-year variety. It’s why Gillis was never going to make a long-term offer to Weber like the Philadelphia Flyers ultimately did: he didn’t think he could land the player that way.
Here’s what Gillis said during a radio appearance BEFORE the Predators matched the massive offer Weber received from the Flyers, again courtesy that Philadelphia press clippings package:
“We felt strongly right from the outset anything that had term attached,
they’d match,” Gillis said. “I think with the loss of Ryan Suter and that they
were in on (Suter) right to the end, trying to sign him for numbers that
resembled what we’re seeing here, that this was their opportunity to match
and get a star player for term.
“When you added everything up, it did not look like it was a real opportunity
(to get the player).
“I do suspect (Nashville) will match. I think they need to protect their team
and protect their marketplace in Nashville and this guy is the face of their
What the Benn story implies then is that perhaps Gillis didn’t conclude that offer sheets for star players were wholly toothless. We might imply that he concluded instead that long-term offer sheets don’t work, but maybe something shorter term would be worth trying.
5. The Value of a Star
Friedman’s story also implies that for the Gillis-era Canucks, it was seen as worthwhile to give up four 1st-round picks for one year of Shea Weber and two firsts, a second- and a third-round pick for one year of Jamie Benn (and his restricted rights).
In the salary cap era it’s nearly impossible to add star-level talent to your roster, particularly in the prime years of said star player’s career. Obviously the Canucks believed that, once in the fold, they could ink Weber and Benn to extensions (otherwise they wouldn’t have been considering these offer sheets), but they were still willing to compensate teams at a high level to add these types of top-of-the-roster pieces.
Following the 2012-13 lockout, the NHL salary cap artificially dipped. The biggest free agent the Canucks could afford to sign in the summer of 2013 was Brad Richardson. Gillis never had another opportunity to wield cap space and really flex his implied one-year offer sheet theory. It might’ve been very interesting to see how it would’ve played out if he had.
6. CBA Uncertainty
In listing reasons the Canucks opted against making a one-year offer sheet to Benn, Friedman mentions that the club was worried about what the new CBA would look like in making such a gamble.
We won’t dwell on this at great length, but it’s extraordinarily interesting that the club was so cautious in this case, but in deciding to hang on to Luongo past the 2012 NHL draft, never seemed to anticipate the impact that the introduction of the salary cap benefit recapture clause might have on Luongo’s trade value…
7. The Dallas Connection
Finally this is a fascinating story because of the long-standing rivalry between the Canucks’ ownership group – the Aquilini family – and Stars owner Tom Gagliardi.
Gagliardi and the Aquilini family were embroiled in extensive litigation during the aughts over the way in which the Aquilini’s became majority owners of the Canucks franchise, allegedly cutting out Gagliardi and a few other ‘partners’ in the process (the Aquilinis won the case decisively).
The question of how involved Canucks ownership became during the waning years of the Gillis era is a contentious, thorny topic. Ownership pushed back hard at the suggestion, for example, that John Tortorella was “their” hire.
We don’t know the extent to which ownership may have been involved in shaping the club’s posture regarding a Jamie Benn offer sheet and there’s good reason to believe that it was simply a hockey decision, made independently by Gillis and the Canucks’ hockey operations department. This context certainly adds an interesting additional element to Friedman’s anecdote though…
Overall the Benn saga illustrates that it’s nearly impossible to land star players, unless you can select them at the NHL entry draft. It’s why the draft is the single most important day on the NHL calendar.
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