Beginning with the NHL draft and culminating in free agency, the league's whirlwind offseason will tear through the beginning of summer in less than two weeks. In between, though, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen and Patrik Laine must wade their way through the constricting territory of restricted free agency. If “restricted” and “free” together sounds absurd, it’s because it is: since the current CBA was ratified in 2013, the amount of restricted free agents to switch teams is exactly zero.
Consider the NBA, where 15 RFAs have switched teams over the same span. The NHL’s system isn’t designed for player freedom or offseason drama. The costs are punitive—teams must forfeit a first- and third-round pick to sign a player to a $6.34 million contract, and it only gets worse from there—and general managers shy away from complicated contract negotiations.
“It’s not due to any gentleman’s agreement,” ex-general manager Brian Burke says. “The team that matches will only drive up prices. There’s no point in making an offer sheet unless you can get the player.”
Here’s how offer sheets work: A restricted free agent’s original team can extend a qualifying offer—a one-year deal, subject to arbitration—once his entry-level contract expires. The player can sign it, go to arbitration or leave it on the table, making him eligible to receive an offer sheet. In that case, any other team can negotiate a deal with the player, but the qualifying offer ensures the original team has the right to match it or receive draft pick compensation.
“The right to match is the real chill,” says Mike Liut, who represents current RFAs Laine, Rantanen and Jordan Binnington. “A right to match, in any setting, chills the market because you’re essentially negotiating a contract for somebody else.”
Restricted free agency functions as a built-in defense mechanism for teams to ward off the prying hands of wealthier clubs. Or, in other words, it artificially lowers the earning potential of young, superstar players by imposing heavy acquisition prices. But what happens when front offices go rogue and buck consensus?
Bad blood and headlines. In 2007, Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe threw an outsized contract at Ducks winger Dustin Penner, which would’ve put the Ducks over the cap. Burke, then Anaheim’s GM, called the move “gutless” before accepting compensation, marking 2007 as the last time an RFA switched teams. The Flyers used the threat of a ludicrous offer sheet as trade leverage to try to seize Predators defenseman Shea Weber in 2012—and didn’t bluff—but Nashville matched the 14-year, $110 million deal.
Liut says he talked to GMs in the past who’ve indicated they wouldn’t hesitate to send an offer sheet if teams are in a vulnerable cap situation. While Ryan O’Reilly signed the last offer sheet six years ago, there’s no longer a taboo attached to going after another team’s restricted free agent. There just aren’t incentives to push a team to do so.
“I think you’ll see some [offer sheets] this summer,” Burke says. “There’s too many teams in cap hell that have really attractive players.”
Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff already skirted an offer sheet tussle by trading Jacob Trouba to the Rangers. Expect more cap jostling and player movement at the NHL draft as teams try to gain cap flexibility heading into contract negotiations. With that in mind, though, here’s a list of players who are most likely to become the first restricted free agent to switch teams in over a decade, and where they could go (based on team needs and cap space):
Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen (TOR)
The Maple Leafs have more problems than trying to keep Marner. Even if general manager Kyle Dubas creates breathing room by clearing Patrick Marleau’s and Nikita Zaitsev’s contracts, Toronto’s defense is so wanting that having Kawhi Leonard on skates might be an improvement. Both Johnsson and Kapanen are coming off 20-goal seasons and the Leafs can’t afford to keep both.
Destinations: Since the New Year, no team scored fewer goals than the Canucks, who also finished bottom-10 in power play goals and shots for. Vancouver is rebuilding, but sacrificing a second-round pick is a small cost for a team without much offensive talent outside of Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser. Signing either Johnsson or Kapanen gives the Canucks enough flexibility to improve its defense in free agency. Throw the Devils in as a potential destination for each RFA as well.
Kevin Labanc (SJS)
After Erik Karlsson signed an eight-year, $92 million deal with San Jose, the Sharks’ first priority will be re-signing Timo Meier. Next, Doug Wilson will have to figure out who to keep of Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist and Labanc with around $5 million (at most) of remaining cap space. They can’t all stay, and San Jose could find itself in a bind if someone gives Labanc a third-tier offer sheet.
Destinations: The Islanders finished with the league’s third-worst power play and is set to lose a plethora of forwards without an immediate replacement. Labanc fits a need as a playmaking wing who thrives on the power play. The Sabres don’t have great depth on the wing, either, but also don’t have any reason to rush their rebuild. For the same reasons as above, Vancouver could be a factor as well.
Vrana had a breakout 2018–19 season, setting career highs in goals (24) and assists (23). But with Nicklas Backstrom due for a contract extension, the Capitals don’t have a lot of cap freedom and Vrana isn’t arbitration eligible, either. Washington will likely surrender Brett Connolly and could move on from Andre Burakovsky. Still, the idea of losing a potential 30-goal scorer about to hit his prime should be enough to make Brian MacLellan worry a bit.
Destinations: The Avalanche will have the best first line in the NHL next season (sorry, Boston fans) but they are also one of the league’s most top-heavy teams. Adding Vrana gives Colorado a scoring punch beyond Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Any picks the Avs would have to give up would fall in the latter third of next year’s draft. If the Penguins make wholesale changes, Vrana would ease the loss of a player like Phil Kessel.
William Karlsson (VGK)
After the Golden Knights extended Mark Stone to an eight-year, $76 million contract, GM George McPhee left himself with $0 in cap space entering free agency. Karlsson’s blazing 23.4 shooting percentage in 2017–18 cooled off, but he still scored more than 20 goals and brings two-way versatility as Vegas’s first-line center. McPhee could use arbitration to shield Karlsson from an offer sheet, with the team’s cap situation being as messy as it is.
Destinations: The Hurricanes could use another center behind Jordan Staal and have the incentive to make a push next season. The Wild are another fit. A trade could be more likely as compensation prices might freeze the market.
No state income tax should help Point and the Lightning agree on a team-friendly deal. Still, Tampa has roughly $6.9 million in cap space after re-signing Braydon Coburn and Point should get around $9 million per year after a 40-goal season.
Destinations: One win away from the Western Conference Final, the Avalanche will still have over $28 million in cap space after re-signing Rantanen, and MacKinnon’s bargain contract gives Colorado tons of cap flexibility. There’s no team in a better position to shed draft picks without harming its future in the process. The Rangers, with one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, could supercharge their rebuild by offering Point a $10.5 million contract.
Mitch Marner (TOR)
Following a breakout 94-point season, Marner wants over $10 million per year. Contract negotiations have reached a stalemate as the Leafs have less than $8.8 million to sign Marner and five more players to complete an active roster.
Destinations: The Devils have the No. 1 overall pick, a ton of cap space and a need to lure Taylor Hall into a contract extension. In the West, the Blackhawks have a short window to capitalize on Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s careers and enough prospects in the system to swallow losing draft capital. Fantasies aside, Marner will be back in Toronto one way or another.
What about Rantanen, Laine, Kyle Connor and Brady Tkachuk? Each of their respective teams should have the room to keep its RFAs without worrying about an offer sheet, eliminating any chance of offseason theatrics.