A 26-year-old All-Star Norris-finalist defenseman with 19 goals and 49 points scored, a 20-year-old winger who led his team in goal scoring with 30, a 22-year-old who became the first player in 24 years to score 8 points in a single game, and an All-Star blueliner who ruptured Patrick Thoresen’s testicle with a slapshot… They’re all available. They’re all free agents. Restricted free agents.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, restricted free agents are players who have received qualifying offers from their teams but have not signed a contract. If another team submits an offer sheet and the player signs, their previous team has seven days to match the offer. If they match, the player is signed with their previous team, and the team is unable to trade that player for one calendar year from the date of the signing. If they decline to match, the new team would sign the player at that salary and term and provide compensation to the player’s previous team.
Compensation is currently based on the player’s salary:
|Under $1.11MM||No compensation|
|$1.11 to $1.68MM||1 third-round pick|
|$1.68 to $3.36MM||1 second-round pick|
|$3.36 to $5.05MM||1 first and 1 third|
|$5.05 to $6.72MM||1 first, 1 second, 1 third|
|$6.72 to $8.41MM||2 firsts, 1 second, 1 third|
The good news for the current teams of the players above – Shea Weber, Evander Kane, Sam Gagner, and Mike Green – is that it’s very rare for a team to lose a player during restricted free agency via an offer sheet. Six restricted free agents have signed offer sheets since the 2005 lockout, with only one player changing teams as a result – Dustin Penner, who went from Anaheim to Edmonton in 2007.
Let’s take a look back at some other significant offer sheets:
1991 – Blues Sign Shanahan, Lose Stevens
The St. Louis Blues were big game hunters in the early ‘90s when it came to free agents. The season before, they’d signed Capitals restricted free agent defenseman Scott Stevens to an offer sheet for four years at a total of $5.1MM; as compensation, the Capitals were awarded five first-round draft picks. In the summer of 1991, the Blues were coming off a 47-22-11 season – one where winger Brett Hull scored 86 goals in 80 games – before losing to the division-rival North Stars in the playoffs. Looking to continue to improve his team, Blues GM Ron Caron signed RFA Brendan Shanahan of the New Jersey Devils. At that time, players or draft picks could be awarded as compensation. After the signing, both sides would present compensation packages to an arbitrator, who would then decide which was a ‘fair amount’ of compensation for the newly-signed player. Since the Blues had already lost their next five first-rounders as compensation in the Stevens signing, the teams needed to negotiate the compensation package. The Blues offered Curtis Joseph and Rod Brind’amour – both essentially rookies at the time; the Devils requested Scott Stevens. The arbitrator sided with New Jersey, providing them with the man who would patrol their blueline for 13 seasons and captain them to their 3 Stanley Cup victories, winning a Conn Smythe Trophy along the way.
(Post script: In 1994, as an RFA, Stevens signed an offer sheet with the St. Louis Blues; wisely, the Devils matched. Not-so-wisely, the Blues were found guilty of tampering by contacting Stevens while he was still under contract; the Devils were awarded a first-round draft pick and $1.45MM.)
1991 – Rangers Grab Gravy
The road from Edmonton to New York would eventually be well-worn, but was uncharted territory when Rangers GM Neil Smith signed gritty winger Adam Graves from the Oilers. An arbitrator awarded winger Troy Mallette to the Edmonton Oilers; the Oilers traded Mallette to the New Jersey Devils after 15 games. Mallette would never match the career-high 29 points he scored in his rookie season, while Graves would go one to have four seasons of 30 goals or more, including 52 goals in 1993-94.
(Post-script: Graves played one game – the season opener against Boston – wearing #11. The next day, the Rangers acquired Mark Messier, the man for whom that number would ultimately be retired by the Rangers, continuing the eastward movement of Oilers.)
1994 – St. Louis Nabs Nedved
The Blues’ continued courtship of RFAs led them to Vancouver center Petr Nedved, a restricted free agent who had held out of camp and not suited up for any of the Canucks’ games that season. After signing the Czech forward, both teams submitted their compensation proposals to an arbitrator. St. Louis offered center Craig Janney and a second-round draft pick; Vancouver requested forward Brendan Shanahan. The arbitrator sided with the Blues (though not until 11 days later, allowing Nedved to play in St. Louis alongside the players who would eventually be awarded to the Canucks as compensation, much to the ire of the other general managers in the league). A few weeks later, at the NHL trade deadline, the Canucks traded Janney (who had refused to report to Vancouver) back to St. Louis for center Nathan Lafayette and defensemen Jeff Brown and Bret Hedican – all of whom would play key roles in the Canucks’ 1994 playoff run, where they ultimately lost to the Rangers in Game 7 of the finals.
(Post script: Nedved’s stay in St. Louis would be short-lived. In the offseason following his acquisition, the Blues were found guilty of tampering, having met with Rangers’ Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan during the playoffs before signing him as coach and general manager in the offseason. As compensation, the Rangers were able to trade an aging Esa Tikkanen and an already-aged Doug Lidster to the Blues for Nedved.)
1995 – The Blues, At It Again, This Time for Corson
After losing Petr Nedved, the St. Louis Blues decided to go after Edmonton center Shayne Corson. The one-time Oilers captain had been stripped of the captaincy late in the season, and the Blues thought they’d be able to pry the physical forward out of Alberta. Predictably, the Oilers did not match the offer, opting instead for draft picks as compensation. Rather than lose the arbitrator-awarded draft picks, new GM Mike Keenan decided to offer forward Mike Grier and goaltender Curtis Joseph to the Oilers instead. The Oilers quickly agreed, essentially turning the signing into a swap of Corson for Joseph and Grier. The deal made the Oilers immediately competitive, with Joseph backstopping the team into first-round playoff upsets in 1997 and 1998. The Blues, on the other hand, attempted to mimic the Rangers’ success of 1994, with coach/GM Mike Keenan bringing in veterans – mostly former Oilers – like Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Esa Tikkanen, and, later that season, Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky left in the offseason. Keenan only lasted one more full season.
1997 – Gratton Traded and Signed, Then Traded Back
Prior to Dustin Penner, Chris Gratton was the last player to actually change teams as a result of an offer sheet. He was also nearly traded to a different team on the same day. On August 12, 1997, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks agreed to a trade that would send Gratton to the Windy City in return for a package that included center Steve Dubinsky, defenseman Keith Carney, and one of either Eric Daze or Ethan Moreau. The problem? Earlier that day, Gratton received an offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers. Tampa GM Phil Esposito claimed that a smudge on the faxed offer sheet invalidated the offer sheet and that the trade should stand. Not surprisingly, an arbitrator ruled that the offer sheet was valid, and Tampa Bay was awarded draft picks as compensation. The Lightning immediately dealt those draft picks back to the Flyers for former Legion-of-Doom winger Mikael Renberg and defenseman Karl Dykhuis.
(Post script: The following season, Gratton would be traded back to Tampa Bay, along with center Mike Sillinger. Going the other way? Daymond Langkow and Mikael Renberg.)
Matched Offer Sheets
When the original team elects to match the offer sheet, it’s likely that they’d planned on keeping the player all along; the drama of the offer sheet is mostly between the media and the fans, wondering what might have been. Here are a few offer sheets where the player re-signed with his team. Take a look, and wonder how those prospective teams may have changed if they were able to sign those RFAs.
1991 – Kevin Stevens (Pittsburgh) – Bruins
Boston-born and educated (Boston College), it seemed fitting for Stevens to suit up with the Bruins. That was their hope when they signed him to an offer sheet in the summer of 1991. The Penguins, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory, looked to retain one of their two 40-goal scorers (Mark Recchi was the other), and matched immediately. Stevens would go on to have career highs in goals (54), assists (69), and points (123), playing a full season alongside Mario Lemieux. Stevens did return to Boston that season, scoring 4 goals for the Penguins in Game 3 of their Conference Finals matchup, which the Pens would go on to sweep on their way to their second straight Stanley Cup championship.
1992 – Teemu Selanne (Winnipeg) - Flames
Now, offer sheets are limited to players who have played a certain number of NHL games, and completed their first NHL contract. Back in 1992, the Calgary Flames presented an offer sheet to a forward who had not yet played in his first NHL game.
The Jets quickly matched the contract; it’s a good thing they did, since Selanne would go on to score a rookie-record 76 goals the following season.
1997 – Joe Sakic (Colorado) - Rangers
The Rangers had just watched captain Mark Messier sign in Vancouver and needed to make a move. They were coming off Wayne Gretzky’s first season in New York and looking to find a way to improve a lineup that included Adam Graves and underperforming Luc Robitaille on the wings. The Avalanche matched the offer sheet for their captain, forcing the Rangers to turn to Plan B – Pat LaFontaine. LaFontaine tied for the team lead in scoring (23) with Gretzky and Alexei Kovalev, before suffering a career-ending concussion in March of 1998.
After they’d matched the offer sheet, Avs GM Pierre LaCroix sent a fax to Rangers’ GM Neil Smith of Nelson Rockefeller extending his middle finger. You know, just to show his gratitude for the Rangers’ offer sheet and the impact on the Colorado franchise’s finances.
2006 – Ryan Kesler (Vancouver) - Flyers
The Vancouver Canucks were perilously close to the salary cap when the Flyers surprisingly tendered an offer sheet to future-Selke-winning forward Ryan Kesler. With captain Keith Primeau heading into retirement, the Flyers were looking to reinforce a forward corps with little depth beyond their top line of Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne, and Mike Knuble. While the price ($1.9MM) was high, the Canucks matched to keep Kesler. GM Dave Nonis commented, “I don’t understand it. To sign a player to a deal, at far more than what he would normally sign to, knowing full well we were going to match the offer … To me that doesn’t make any sense.” The 2006-07 season ended up being the worst season in Flyers history, with only the emergence of young stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter as highlights — at least at the time. Now, they’re both enjoying their summer with the Cup, and the Flyers, well…
2007 – Thomas Vanek (Buffalo) – Oilers
It was a great season for the Buffalo Sabres in 2006-07 — the team finished first in the Eastern Conference, making it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes. The offseason that followed, though, was catastrophic. Forwards Danny Briere, Chris Drury, and Dainius Zubrus all left via free agency. The Edmonton Oilers, coming off a terrible season, were looking to make a big move. Sabres GM Darcy Regier heard rumors that the Oilers were planning on making an offer sheet on 43-goal scorer Thomas Vanek. He called Kevin Lowe, Oilers’ General Manager, to advise that any offer sheet would be matched and that Lowe would be wasting his time. Lowe went ahead anyway, offering Vanek a staggering seven-year, $50MM contract. As expected, Regier matched, saying, “We aren’t going to become a farm team for other NHL teams.” While still a top-line player, Vanek never matched his career highs in goals and points from the 2006-07 season.
2010 – Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago) - Sharks
It was well-reported that the Blackhawks would have a difficult time retaining the core of their Stanley Cup Championship team. At the salary cap limit and with restricted free agents to re-sign, the team knew it would have to make trades and let players leave, having already traded away Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg. The Sharks forced their hand on defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson by signing him to an offer sheet. Having little space to work with, but hesitant to lose the up-and-coming blueliner, GM Stan Bowman matched the offer. This left little room for goaltender Antti Niemi; with contract talks stalled, the Hawks and Niemi went to arbitration. The arbitrator awarded Niemi a $2.75MM contract, which the Hawks were unable to fit under the cap, forcing them to let Niemi walk as a free agent. Niemi later signed with the San Jose Sharks – the same Sharks who had tendered the offer sheet to Hjalmarsson in the first place.