The case for using RFA offer sheets as weapons in NHL free agency this year
By Department of Hockey Analytics (Ian Cooper with Phil Curry and IJay Palansky)
It was mid-February 1998 and the Carolina Hurricanes, desperate to jump start the franchise’s future in its new home, made a bold decision and offered a gargantuan contract to Detroit Red Wings All-Star Sergei Fedorov, who had been holding out the entire season. The Hurricanes decided to see if he was ready for a fresh start in the sun. We all know what happened next. Detroit matched Carolina’s offer, kept Fedorov at great expense, and went on to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup that spring.
The following summer, I was an aspiring law student and player agent attending a sports law conference at which Brian Burke, the GM of the Vancouver Canucks at the time, was speaking. When asked what he thought of the Fedorov offer sheet the ever quotable Burke responded with a one-word expletive: “horses**t”.
Here we are almost two decades later and Burke’s world view still pretty much encapsulates what most NHL GMs must think of restricted free agent (RFA) offer sheets.
For those unfamiliar with how RFA offer sheets work, here’s a quick primer. Any team can make an offer to an RFA. The team that holds the player’s rights can then either match the offer or let him go and receive a draft pick (or multiple picks) in compensation from the new team depending on the amount the player signs for with his new team.
Under the current CBA, if the player's new deal is $1,205,377 or less, nothing is owed to his former team.
A deal of over $1,205,377 to $1,826,328 will cost the signing team a third-round pick.
If the new contract is over $1,826,328 to $3,652,659, a second round choice is the price.
The next level—over $3,652,659 to $5,478,986—is steeper: A first- and a third-round choice.
Top $5,478,986 up to $7,305,316 and we're talking a first-, second- and third-rounder.
Above that up to $9,131,645 will require the signing team to cough up two first-rounders plus a second- and third-rounder.
The stratosphere—above $9,131,646—will cost four first-round picks.
A grand total of eight offer sheets have gone out since Fedorov’s and only one was accepted. Amusingly enough, that one involved Dustin Penner, who was then one of Burke’s charges in Anaheim. (At the time Burke was a little more diplomatic in his contempt, calling the signing “gutless” and getting into a famous verbal sniping war with offending GM Kevin Lowe of Edmonton.)
Now it makes sense for a GM to complain when his team is either forced to give up one of its players or else pay more money than he’d like. And fans who lose a top young talent should be annoyed too. But in a league where the salary cap permeates pretty much every major player personnel decision, a more nuanced and—dare I say adult—view is required.
Put simply, teams under cap pressure have to shed big contracts and ones with space should apply leverage where they can and go on a shopping spree.
Sending out an offer sheet isn’t just about getting the player. It’s also about hedging your bets and ensuring that if you don’t get the player you can still wreak havoc on a key opponent’s cap structure.
As we noted last summer, unrestricted free agents (UFAs) are always far riskier propositions than RFAs. This year, that looks to be even more true with a very sketchy crop of available UFAs. You have to really think hard to come up with a summer when the big name UFAs are less inspiring than a 35-year-old Brad Richards, a 40-year-old Marty St. Louis (who has announced that he will retire), a one-dimensional defenseman like Mike Green (fifth in average time on ice on the Capitals) or Mike Ribeiro’s mix of inconsistent play and off-ice issues.
Worse still, with the exception of St. Louis, all of those guys are no longer available after the opening day of the signing period. The best that was left on the shelf included backliners Johnny Oduya, Christian Ehrhoff, and Cody Franson, and perhaps underperforming forward Chris Stewart.
The dearth of capable UFAs makes the prospect of sending out RFA offer sheets even more enticing.
Rather remarkably, the Western Conference runner up, the Anaheim Ducks, have an enviable cap position with a total committed payroll of only $49.8 million, which includes having three of their top D-men (Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and Simon Despres) on very cheap deals, as well as Cam Fowler locked up at $4 million for the foreseeable future. This leaves them $21.6 million to play with. Hats off to GM Bob Murray for pulling that off.
Maybe the Ducks can use some of that dry powder as artillery that targets the Western Conference rivals they seem to constantly come up just short against in the playoffs.
Lucky for them, two of the top teams in the Central Division—Chicago (total cap commitment of $71.7 million against a cap of $71.4) and St. Louis ($57.6 million)—are facing a lot of pressure. At first the Blues’ situation doesn’t look too bad, but keep in mind they have locked up only 16 roster spots whereas the Ducks have committed 17. That leaves the Blues vulnerable as well.
Anaheim’s cap management has left the Ducks in a position of power.
But who to sign?
Until late in the day before free agency opened, the Blackhawks’ Brandon Saad was the prime candidate. It’s debatable how much of his performance this season was the product of his immensely talented teammates, but his offensive performance and the eye test both suggest that prying him away from the Blackhawks would help any rival both by addition to their team and subtraction from the champs. Unfortunately for the Ducks, the Blackhawks may just be the smartest team in hockey, which is why they figured that out and dealt Saad to Columbus late Tuesday.
That leaves Marcus Kruger, a 25-year-old who managed only 17 total points last season. And 17 points isn’t a lot, though the total understates his true offensive contribution since all but one of those points were earned during 5-on-5 play. Still, it’s unlikely that Kruger would ever see power play time with the Ducks either, meaning his value is primarily defensive. While his shot attempt percentage of 52.3% was below the Blackhawks’ team average, only 25.3% of his shifts started in the offensive zone and more than half started in the defensive zone. If the Ducks, who were a middling possession team last season, are looking to add some defensive responsibility to their lineup, Kruger would be a solid candidate.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old sniper Vladimir Tarasenko may be the most talented RFA on the market this summer. By any measure Tarasenko is a stud. His top line stats (73 points in 77 games) were good enough for 10th in league scoring last season. But what’s even more impressive is the fact that he actually ranked second in the league in five-on-five points (50) and fifth in points per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time (2.79) for all players who logged more than 300 minutes. That was better than Tyler Seguin, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pat Kane and Corey Perry, to name a few of the league’s elite players (all stats courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
During the past three seasons Schwartz logged just under half of his five-on-five ice time with Tarasenko and had a shot attempt percentage of 55.2% when the two played together. That dropped to 52.8% when Tarasenko wasn’t on the ice. Meanwhile, Alex Pietrangelo’s shot attempt percentage dropped from 55.0% with Tarasenko to 51.7% without him during the same time period.
Those are just the top couple of guys. As it turns out, every player on the Blues who has logged more than 100 five-on-five minutes with Tarasenko over the past three seasons is better with him than without. That includes players like Jay Bouwmeester, Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny, who went from an impressive 58.5% with Tarasenko to a pretty mediocre 50.7% without him.
The Blues have made clear that they’ll do whatever it takes to resign Tarasenko. But that doesn’t mean they can match the Ducks in cap space for a guy who has all the hallmarks of a franchise player and would be a terrifying presence in a lineup that already includes Getzlaf, Perry and a strong supporting cast.
At a minimum, forcing St. Louis to match an offer sheet would be a blow to them and also would raise the bar for Schwartz, who becomes an RFA next summer. So why not take a shot at Tarasenko?
Last but not least, a couple of guys on the Rangers deserve honorable mention. The Blueshirts have $58.9 million committed to a mere 15 players. They clearly need to re-sign Derek Stepan, who is expecting a sizeable raise. But Carl Hagelin, who the Ducks just acquired from New York, showed synergy with Jesper Fast in limited ice time this past season. (The pair had a shot attempt percentage of 54.4% when on the ice together and Hagelin was a mere 49.2% without Fast.) Assuming the synergy was real rather than random chance, making a play for the aptly named Fast could give the Ducks more bang for their buck out of the Hagelin deal.
And of course for sheer comedy value the Ducks could make a play for Emerson Etem, another RFA they traded to get Hagelin. As intriguing as this ploy would be, I don’t expect Murray to think getting either Fast or Etem is worth the cost of having new Rangers GM Jeff Gorton never return one of his phone calls again, not to mention the compensation required in the form of draft picks.
With Saad now out of the free agent picture less than three weeks after playing a central role in Chicago’s latest Cup run, it’s fair to think that there may not be any blockbuster signings this offseason, especially in light of the taboo associated with RFA offer sheets.
But if they’re bold enough to step up on Kruger and/or Tarasenko, the Ducks could be in a position to bring the Cup back to Anaheim. Murray’s former boss Brian Burke might have some choice quotes for the occasion, but that’s a cost well worth paying.
The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper (@ian_doha), a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry (@phil_doha), a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a litigator at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Please visit us online at www.depthockeyanalytics.com