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Why GMs shy away from offer sheets

by Adam Kimelman
What general manager wouldn't want to see Steven Stamkos centering his first line? Or Drew Doughty patrolling his blue line? Those players, and other emerging stars, are available for all 30 teams.

So why aren't they getting any offers?

Because those players, and others like them, are restricted free agents, meaning their current team reserves the right to match any offer that player receives.

Since the summer of 2005, only six restricted free agents have been signed to offer sheets, most recently last year, when the San Jose Sharks signed Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a four-year, $14 million deal. Of those six offers, five were matched; the exception was Dustin Penner, who left the Anaheim Ducks for the Edmonton Oilers and a five-year, $21 million contract in the summer of 2007. The Ducks received first-, second- and third-round picks from the Oilers in the 2008 Entry Draft as compensation.

Why the lack of offer sheets? At least one GM predicted the implementation of the salary cap would cause more teams to go after restricted free agents.

As general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Bob Clarke fired the first salvo in the restricted free agent chase, signing Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler to a one-year, $1.7 million sheet in September 2006. At the time, Kesler had played just one full NHL season. The Canucks matched the offer two days later, and Clarke was decried for his spending. However, he predicted at the time that he was at the forefront of a trend.

"I think the difference is that in the past there were no restrictions on how much you can spend," Clarke told CBC Sports' website. "So it was sort of an unwritten rule that you didn't sign any Group 2 players because the other team would match. In today's (salary cap) world, you may not match. You may take the compensation. This is the first one (offer sheet), but it's not going to be the last."

Clarke was right in that it wasn't the last, but there haven't been many.

In 2007, Edmonton signed Thomas Vanek to a seven-year, $50 million offer, but the Buffalo Sabres matched. Three weeks later they nabbed Penner with their offer.

On July 1, 2008, the Canucks signed David Backes to a three-year, $7.5 million offer sheet, which the St. Louis Blues matched. On July 8, the Blues signed Steve Bernier to a one-year, $2.5 million sheet that the Canucks promptly matched.

Since the Hjalmarsson deal last summer, there haven't been any offers. And one former GM thinks the idea of an elite player like Stamkos or Doughty leaving their current teams via an offer sheet just won't happen.

"The idea that somebody is going to put an offer sheet on Stamkos is ludicrous, or an offer sheet on Doughty is ludicrous," NHL Network analyst and former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button told

Button said that while it's hard for him to imagine any team allowing an elite-level player to leave, it's the second tier of players that could be easier to acquire with an offer sheet.

"I think if you really want to acquire a player with a Group 2 offer sheet, it's to say I'm going to try to get that player that maybe hasn't emerged yet," Button said. "Karl Alzner -- the Caps appear to be up against the cap, you might be able to acquire a player like Karl Alzner, in the sense they look at it and what's the compensation? Karl Alzner is going to get $3 million for it to be a first-round draft choice, and when you look at the Capitals' cap situation, you could look at that and maybe we have a chance to get a player there, but it becomes a thing where the Caps look at it and we're up against the cap, we're going to get a first-round pick, and now they say, 'OK.'"

Button said the key is finding the right player -- one who hasn't emerged as a star player -- and targeting that player with an offer sheet. As he said, "It's not hard to say, 'I'll pay Steven Stamkos $120 million for 10 years.'"

In Button's estimation, the Flyers were bang-on in their assessment of Kesler as an emerging player back in 2006. Where they missed, however, was not having their financial assessment set as strong as their scouting one.

"When the Philadelphia Flyers put an offer sheet in on Ryan Kesler, they identified a player that hadn't emerged yet," Button said. "What they did, was, they didn't offer enough money to make it unpalatable for the Vancouver Canucks. He was a first-round draft choice, so why not get to the point where you offer a first and a third (as compensation)? Now Vancouver says he's a first-round pick, we're going to get a first-round pick, but there's no way its palatable for Vancouver to give up a player like that for a second-round draft pick. The team putting in an offer sheet has to make it unpalatable for the team to think about it."

Button also was very candid in saying public outbursts by GMs like Toronto's Brian Burke or Los Angeles' Dean Lombardi had no bearing on teams' willingness to pursue restricted free agents. And there was little to no fear factor in having an offended GM target a certain team's restricted free agents.

"Who's Dean to say you go after one of mine and I'll go after one of yours? Go ahead," Button said. "It's about valuing players. … I always laugh about when Brian went on his tirade against Kevin Lowe."

More important to Button was what signing a restricted free agent would do to his own payroll. Would it raise the rates on your player who might hit free agency the following season? Or would it make your own restricted free agent vulnerable to an offer sheet?

"We sit here and say, 'Why aren't there offer sheets?'" Button said, "but you may impale yourself. You not only need to know your current situation, but you need to know your future situation better than you know your current one."

Regardless of the fear, Button said offer sheets are in the collective bargaining agreement for a reason. The key is picking the right target to shoot for.

"The bottom line is there are the tools at your disposal," Button said. "You just have to understand the future ramifications."

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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