It seems that in the buildup to every single summer in the post-lockout era the conversation has inevitably turned to the potential for an earthshaking off-season offer sheet. It’s funny that has been the case, too, because so rarely has the option been exercised by teams and restricted free agents.
In fact, only eight times since the dawn of the salary cap era has an offer sheet been inked between an RFA and an interested party, with only one such instance resulting in a player actually switching teams. That’s the infamous Dustin Penner signing, which saw the then-Ducks-owned winger ink a five-year, $21.5-million pact with the Edmonton Oilers in July 2007, which Anaheim decided against matching and instead accepted the first-, second- and third-round picks that came their way as compensation.
At the time, Penner’s offer sheet was the third that had been signed in two off-seasons and the second in less than one month. In September 2006, then-Vancouver Canuck Ryan Kesler signed a one-year offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers, but the $1.9-million contract was matched in short order. Mere weeks before Penner signed his offer sheet, Thomas Vanek signed a prospective seven-year, $50-million deal with the Edmonton Oilers, but the Buffalo Sabres were quick to match.
The flurry of offer sheet action continued in those early post-lockout years. In 2008, David Backes and Steve Bernier signed offer sheets that were matched by their respective clubs. Niklas Hjalmarsson signed one in July 2010, just one month after winning the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. Chicago matched. And the last pair of signed offer sheets came in 2012 and 2013, as Shea Weber and Ryan O’Reilly inked such deals as RFAs only for those contracts to be matched by the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche, respectively.
However, there hasn’t been a single offer sheet signing in the six-plus years since, likely due in part to the considerable compensation that comes along with an accepted deal and the apparent unwillingness by GMs to burn a bridge. But there’s reason to believe that could change this summer, particularly as a few cap-strapped teams face difficult decisions with talented youngsters. So, who are the prime targets?
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs
For some, this conversation begins and ends with Marner, and it’s not all that hard to see why. Marner had an absolutely monster 94-point season, built on a career-best 26 goals and 68 assists. He also boasted the highest average ice time of any Maple Leafs forward, formed incredible chemistry with John Tavares and was utilized in all situations. And compare Marner’s production over his first three campaigns with that of Auston Matthews, who inked a five-year extension that kicks in next season and carries an $11.6-million cap hit, and you can see why Marner’s camp is looking for a similar pact. Matthews, in his three seasons, has 111 goals and 205 points in 212 games. Marner has 67 goals and 224 points in 241 contests.
The thing is that the Maple Leafs, as it stands, can’t afford to pay Marner $11 million or more next season. Even with a potential rise in the cap limit to $83 million, Toronto has less than $9 million in projected cap space next season and that’s with holes to fill up front and on defense. Sure, the Maple Leafs can shuffle the deck and free cap room by moving out talent, but that might not happen before Marner explores his offer sheet options, which TSN’s Darren Dreger suggested the 22-year-old may very well do.
An $11-million offer sheet isn’t going to be an option for many teams, but the New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes are among those who have the cap space to make a pitch. Marner is the most interesting offer sheet candidate this summer, by far.
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
Not lost in the chatter about the potential for Erik Karlsson to explore an off-season deal with the Lightning is that Tampa Bay needs to find the cap space to retain its own talent before it can dip its toes into the free agent market. The Lightning’s current cap space projection is a hair more than $8.5 million this off-season, and Point, 23, is primed to eat up every single cent of that this summer. However, if a rival club wanted to put the screws to Tampa Bay, it might be able to do just that by giving Point an offer sheet valued at $9 million-plus.
While the Bolts would almost certainly match such an offer and then deal with the fallout afterwards, doing what they can to free up the cap space to make all the pieces fit, Point would be worth whatever effort it required to try to steal him away. Yes, he had an excellent statistical season and scored 41 goals and 92 points in 79 games with the Lightning, but he’s also an excellent two-way pivot that could hop into duty on nearly any team’s top line.
Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s no intent here to make this Maple Leafs-centric. Facts are facts, though, and the fact is that Toronto is up against the cap and their wiggle room is virtually non-existent, especially if they re-sign Marner or match any offer sheet that he might ink. And even if Marner were to sign with the Maple Leafs at a heavily discounted $9 million – which you can bet against happening – that still leaves Toronto with no cap space to re-sign anyone else. Of course, the Maple Leafs will try to offload salary, possibly beginning with Nazem Kadri or Nikita Zaitsev, but Toronto is likely to remain in a bind even if one of the two is moved.
Thus, a team looking to feast on the Maple Leafs’ RFAs could throw some money Kapanen’s way and attempt to pry him out of Toronto for a reasonable return. A contract that carries a cap hit of less than $4.227 million would require one second-round selection as compensation, and if the money is enough for Kapanen to put pen to paper and lure him away from the Maple Leafs, there's reason to believe it would be worthwhile. The 22-year-old posted 20 goals and 44 points last season in a top-six role, and he has potential to become a consistent scorer for any club.
William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Here’s where the Golden Knights’ one-year deal with Karlsson, which likely saved them money on a long-term deal after the 26-year-old’s breakout 2017-18 season, has potential to backfire. Vegas enters the coming campaign right up against the cap with several players, including RFAs Karlsson, Nikita Gusev, Tomas Nosek and backup goaltender Malcolm Subban, in need of deals. There’s money to be moved around, no doubt. For instance, there’s already chatter about shipping out defenseman Colin Miller. Plus, David Clarkson’s assignment to long-term injured reserve clears some cap space once the season begins. But the reality is that Vegas will still be in a cap crunch this summer.
So, if you’re a competitor looking for a solid second-line center who’s defensively responsible and has offensive upside, why not chase Karlsson? He’s proven he can contribute to a winning club and he has plenty to offer. It’s going to take a significant deal – maybe in the range of a $6.5-million to $7-million AAV – but that would make it awfully tough for Vegas to match and it might be worth the three picks, a first, second and third, that have to be surrendered as compensation.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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