The Stanley Cup playoffs may be in full swing, but off-season concerns are never far from the thoughts of GMs at this time of year, especially regarding their potential free agents.
The July 1 eligibility date for unrestricted free agency may still be more than two months away, but every NHL GM is considering which of their free agents they’ll retain and how to fit the new salaries under next season’s salary cap.
This off-season brings an added measure of risk for GMs – a shorter schedule to re-sign their top RFAs.
In the past, management could take their time with RFA negotiations, secure in the knowledge that, having made qualifying offers to those players, their rights would be retained, thus preventing the players from signing elsewhere.
No longer, thanks to Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe tendering offer sheets last summer to Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek and Anaheim’s Dustin Penner.
The Sabres matched Lowe’s offer on Vanek, paying considerably more than they intended, but the Ducks opted not to match, allowing Penner to become an Oiler in exchange for Edmonton’s first three draft picks in 2008.
Howls of anger arose around the league after Lowe’s move, led by the Sabres and Ducks. But, thanks to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, the Oilers GM was well within his rights.
Offer sheets were an option for GMs under the previous CBA, but were rarely tendered since they were almost always matched. Under the current CBA, however, the salary cap can make it difficult for teams to match such offers, as the Oilers’ successful signing of Penner attests.
With this summer’s UFA pool considered a shallow one, it’s possible more RFAs could become targets for offer sheets.
That explains why an unusually high number of potential RFA players were re-signed to new contracts over the course of the 2007-08 season. Still, several talented potential RFAs have yet to be inked by their respective clubs.
That list includes Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester, Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter, Anaheim’s Corey Perry, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Columbus’ Pascal Leclaire, Washington’s Mike Green, Minnesota’s Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Montreal’s Andrei Kostitsyn, Ottawa’s Andrej Meszaros and Nashville’s Martin Erat, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
While their respective clubs intend to re-sign them, the longer it takes, the greater the threat of an offer sheet becomes.
This gives those RFAs considerable leverage in contract negotiations. In the past, the only option they would’ve had to land a better deal was to stage a holdout, which rarely worked well for the player in terms of dollars and performance.
But now, GMs are under pressure to re-sign their best RFAs and avoid the dreaded offer sheet, meaning younger players are now commanding lucrative deals that, in the past, would’ve gone to veterans with considerably more time in the NHL.
Re-signing a RFA is the best method to avoid an offer sheet, but it’s not the only one.
A GM can take the player to salary arbitration, as the CBA dictates. A player whose contract negotiations are headed for arbitration is ineligible to receive an offer sheet. The New York Rangers successfully used this tactic last summer with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The same rule is in play if the player applies for salary arbitration.
Such a move buys the GM a few extra weeks of bargaining time in hopes of reaching an agreement and avoiding arbitration, so it wouldn’t be surprising if more GMs pursue that option this summer.
The only other choice for a GM is to hope that if an RFA player is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, he and his agent spurn an offer sheet to cash in on the riches of the UFA market.
The player could consider this a more enticing option if he’s toiling for a mediocre team and unwilling to risk them matching an offer sheet and robbing him of the opportunity to play for a better club and earn considerably more money the following year.
A Florida newspaper recently suggested that could be an option for the Panthers’ Bouwmeester. He’s eligible for UFA status next summer and might only want to sign a one-year contract with the Panthers, rather than risk them matching an offer sheet from a rival team, thus tying him to Florida, longer.
The threat of offer sheets this summer had a significant impact on RFA contract negotiations throughout the NHL over the past season, and it’s expected to remain a factor as the summer nears.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, www.spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Foxsports.com and Eishockey Magazine.