RFA system leaves much to be desired

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Dustin Penner (2007) is the only restricted free agent to change teams, and he cost the Oilers plenty. (Jason O. Watson/US Presswire)


By Stu Hackel

Let's file this post under the category of things we have to cover (our SI.com hockey page overlord John Rolfe likens it to eating your spinach). It's less fun than, say, debating Chris Osgood's career or trying to figure out who has the right to claim the history of the Winnipeg Jets, but it contains useful information and perhaps even essential vitamins and minerals. So open up and start chewing.

Few things are more restrictive than restricted free agency in the NHL. Hundreds of players have been RFAs since the current CBA was adopted in 2005, but only six have received offer sheets -- Ryan Kesler, Thomas Vanek, Dustin Penner, David Backes, Steve Bernier and Niklas Hjalmarsson -- and of those, only Penner changed teams.

That's something to keep in mind when you hear people urge NHL GMs to take a run at an RFA. The 2011 group is stellar, led by Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Zach Parise, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Devin Setoguchi, Luke Schenn, Kyle Okposo, and Zach Bogosian. Any club would be instantly better with one of them in its lineup. But the RFA system is too onerous to permit player movement. Three weeks into free agency, some of these guys have re-upped with their old teams and it's folly to think any of them are going anywhere other than back to where they came from.

For one thing, some filed for arbitration (or their teams did) and that means they're not eligible for an offer sheet that would allow them to move. In other cases, the teams said they would match any offer sheet, so even tendering  one would be futile. The GMs know that.

They also know that none of the aforementioned players would come cheaply. First, a team that acquires an RFA through an offer sheet has to give up as many as four first-round picks, depending on the salary for which the RFA signs. Second, as Kevin Allen points out in USA Today, to attract an RFA, a team might have to offer a salary that would suddenly catapult the club over the salary cap, and any team that has the space for an RFA isn't automatically attractive to a rising star who is looking to make an impact for a Cup contender.

There's one other thing that GMs realize: Signing an RFA to an offer sheet ends up causing salary inflation and makes their jobs more difficult while angering ownership, something no GM wants to do.

It's always been that way with RFAs. When the Rangers offered Joe Sakic a three-year, $21 million deal in 1997, the Avalanche matched and established the superstar salary at $7 million. The pre-lockout salary spiral began immediately (which we chronicled here when Sakic retired two years ago) and helped doom the 2004 CBA negotiations. "The dance is open,” an irritated Avs GM Pierre Lacroix said. ”The Rangers were very active in the free-agent galaxy. The way they are going, the way they are acting, I’m sure they are going to be the first team to sign an alien and to have an alien to play for their team. I just hope the planet of the alien will have a chance to match.”

Lacroix was right (about the dance being open, not the alien part).

But since 1997, the only RFA to change teams is Dustin Penner. In 2007, he signed an offer sheet with the Oilers for five years and $21.25 million, with a cap hit of $4.35 million. Now that's a salary you'd give to a player you hope would get you a point per game or maybe 30 goals. Penner, who had been making the league minimum ($450,000) for Anaheim, hit that 30-goal mark just once in nearly four full seasons with Edmonton and was good for about a half-point per game. Tired of his inconsistency for that price, the Oilers shipped him to the Kings late last season, where he didn't do much in 19 games (two goals, six points). But every top six power forward-looking for new contract can point to Penner's deal and say "That's what the market value is for my type of player." In any arbitration hearing, Penner can be cited as a comparable (UFA deals cannot).

The inflationary aspect of offer sheets generates lots of ill will. Before they acquired Penner, the Oilers tried to land Vanek  for seven years and $50 million. Buffalo matched, but at a much higher salary than it preferred and the offer sheet certainly strained the Sabres' budget. The same thing happened when the Canucks offered a sheet to Backes -- and the Blues retaliated a week later by submitting a sheet to Bernier. Last summer, realizing that the Blackhawks had cap difficulties, the Sharks tried to snare Hjalmarsson. The Hawks matched but had to cut loose goalie Antti Niemi, who they couldn't afford to re-sign. Hjalmarsson is a good defenseman, but you can bet the Hawks didn't want to have to pay him $3.5 million after he got $666,000 coming out of his entry-level contract.

In each of these cases, bad feelings resulted, none more celebrated than the Brian Burke-Kevin Lowe feud that broke out after the Penner signing and just kept going. The GMs are a cozy club and they do business with other regularly. No one wants to anger his colleagues for fear of losing a potential trading partner.

So while its easy to say that a GM who isn't hunting for RFAs isn't properly doing his job of trying to improve his team, there are real world pressures that greatly inhibit the offer sheet process.

What this will mean for RFAs in the next CBA is unclear. There must always be mechanisms in place that allow players to get fair market value for their services if they believe their teams are lowballing them, and reward them if they improve. But, like salary arbitration -- which teams and players both want to avoid -- the offer sheet aspect of the RFA system also seems fraught with difficulties and isn't an effective tool. Yet, if it is eliminated, does that remove a necessary, if infrequently used, lever that keeps the RFA portion of the CBA workable? This is why they have collective bargaining.

As for the big name RFAs still out there, the Kings' Doughty begged out of the team's annual cruise last weekend, one of those offseason fan-mingling events, according to Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times. "There’s no official word on why Doughty stayed on dry land, but it’s likely he wanted to avoid facing constant questions about his contract status with no easy escape from those inquiries except a lifeboat," she wrote.

Elliott reported two weeks ago that the Kings are offering Doughty up to nine seasons at more than $6.5 million per year. That's a long time for a deal under the current CBA, which ends after this coming season, and is perhaps part of the sticking point. Elliott asked Kings GM Dean Lombardi if he was talking with Doughty's reps, Don Meehan and Mark Guy of Newport Sports, and Lombardi answered via email, "Focused on negotiations for raising the debt ceiling now.”

There's some thinking that Doughty and his camp are waiting for the outcome of Weber's situation to see what the market for top young defenseman looks like. The Predators captain has an arbitration hearing on Aug. 2, and the team and his agent Jarrett Bousquet continue to talk in hopes of staying out of the hearing room. Josh Cooper of The Tennessean spoke with Bousquet last week and there was no indication that Weber was getting antsy. Bousquet said Weber wants to be a Predator (who wouldn't, with those snazzy new gold jerseys?) and feels the team is "on the cusp of doing something great." But Bousquet wasn't all sunshine. “We’ve had long talks; we seem to be coming to a bit of a stalemate," he said, adding, "We still have time to work before the system kicks in.”

It's a system that, right now, isn't always very good.