Tuesday July 7th, 2015

Fans in St. Louis don’t care what it cost to re-sign restricted free agent Vladimir Tarasenko on Tuesday. They’re just thrilled that he’ll be part of their team for a long, long time.

But the news probably won’t be greeted quite as warmly around the rest of the league.

The Blues showed the star right winger exactly what they thought of him with a stunning eight-year, $60 million contract. The length of the deal is the longest allowed under the CBA. The $7.5 million average annual value makes Tarasenko the highest-paid player on the team.

To many minds it’s a deal he’s earned. The 23-year-old Tarasenko has quickly established himself as one of the game’s top offensive stars. He scored 37 goals last season, tied for fifth in the league, and ranked 10th with 73 points. Nothing wrong with paying a top player top dollar.

• Available free agents plus cap space | Signings tracker

Except, of course, that it’s not the way the system has worked in the past. Young stars at the end of their entry-level deals, as Tarasenko was, often settled for bridge pacts that included significant (but not outlandish) raises and a short terms. Such contracts forced players to prove themselves worthy of bigger deals and protected teams from over-committing to athletes with short résumés.

Now, though, teams need protection not only from themselves but from predacious competitors bearing offer sheets. The fear of losing a good young player to free agency (without getting something tangible, beyond draft picks, in return) is why the cap-strapped Bruins and Blackhawks felt compelled to trade away Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad, respectively, both of whom then got significant deals from their new teams. And it’s why St. Louis went all in to ensure that Tarasenko would remain with the Blues into his 30s.

NHL
The case for using RFA offer sheets as weapons in NHL free agency this year

If just one or two players had been treated this way their deals might have been written off as anomalies. But three sure looks like a trend, and it’s one that could have serious ramifications on the contracts sought by next year’s top-heavy class of restricted free agents (RFAs).

Consider a team like the Flames, who will have two major unrestricted free agents (UFAs)—top scorer Jiri Hudler and No. 1 defenseman Mark Giordano—looking to cash in next summer at the same time as RFAs Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Both Gaudreau and Monahan are young first-liners with high upsides, exactly the sorts of players likely to attract offer sheets from other teams. And while Calgary seems to have plenty of cap space that doesn’t mean that it can afford all four players.

The Jets could face the same problem as they seek to lock up Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele. Or how about Nikita Kucherov in Tampa Bay or John Gibson in Anaheim or Filip Forsberg in Nashville?

It seems likely that each of these players will be re-signed by his current team. It’s important for teams to invest in their best young players. But it’s going to cost more than ever to get their names on the dotted line. And if one team isn’t willing to ante up in this changing marketplace, it’s a good bet that others will.

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