Why Offer Sheets To Restricted Free Agents Have Become So Rare, And Could They Make A Comeback?

Photos: NBC via Getty

A typical off-season in the NHL includes at least some murmurs of whether or not a top-tier restricted free agent (RFA) will receive an offer sheet from another NHL team. Restricted free agents, especially the top tier ones, are usually very important to the roster construction of their current team.

Rarely, through the course of NHL history, are offer sheets agreed upon from both parties, putting the team that holds the rights to that player in a tumultuous position of deciding between matching an opposing offer, or recouping draft pick compensation and releasing the player to the team that submitted an offer sheet to the player.

With young talented players entering their prime being of utmost importance to building a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup for years to come, why aren’t offer sheets more prevalent?

Burning bridges

Submitting an offer sheet on a restricted free agent is a great way of infuriating another general manager, and potentially burning a bridge in future trade negotiations with that club. If a team retains the rights to a restricted free agent, but becomes embroiled in a longer contract negotiation, oftentimes, what you can see is another GM swooping in and submitting an outrageous offer sheet that the player will sign.

This puts the player in the position of power. The team has to either match the offer sheet, or watch a highly valuable asset walk out of their roster for draft pick compensation. For a contending team that’s trying to win now, draft picks (from a team that likely just got a lot better) doesn’t remedy the sting of losing a valuable asset that was in your team’s long term plans.

The best recent example of this was when the Montreal Canadiens submitted an offer sheet to Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho. Carolina offered Aho an offer sheet of five years with a cap hit of $8,460,250. Aho accepted, which necessitated the Hurricanes matching the offer sheet. Oh, and the best part about this offer sheet? It walks Aho right to unrestricted free agency after the 2023-24 season.

What happened in the summer of 2021? Oh, the Carolina Hurricanes submitted a one year offer sheet to Montreal’s former third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi, which the Canadiens chose not to match. The Hurricanes’ use of the offer sheet here was widely viewed as a revenge tactic against the Habs.

Immense cost for high tier players

On the other hand, though, teams that submit offer sheets to top end RFAs are setting themselves up for being on the hook for an absolute haul of draft picks:

This is a chart from CapFriendly that outlines the draft pick compensation requirements for an offer sheet. For this example, I’m using the Capitals’ draft pick ownership to show what type of player the Capitals would likely be able to afford (not in cap space, but just draft compensation).

Not only do you have to have the draft picks in the rounds required to submit an offer sheet to a player, you have to actually own your team’s own picks in that round. You cannot use another team’s draft picks that you’ve acquired to be used in the compensation for a restricted free agent signing an offer sheet.

On top of that, the average annual value of the contract (AAV) is calculated by using the lesser of the number of years offered in the offer sheet or five years. That means you can’t just offer a longer term contract to get the cap hit down.

To hammer in the high cost, here’s the top five RFAs in terms of point production last season, with contract projections from Evolving Hockey:

There are not a lot of players that I’d consider to be worth four first round picks, and I’m not exactly sure that I’d consider Alex DeBrincat or Timo Meier to be on that list. They’re really good players, for sure, but they’re not worth leveraging four years of higher end prospects in four drafts.

Not to mention, if you’re the Capitals, how good do you think the team will be in five years? Since the time frame to offer sheet restricted free agents comes after the NHL Entry Draft, we’re looking at draft capital from the 2024-2028 NHL drafts.

On top of that, the Caps don’t have the draft pick compensation requirement met for the lower (perspective!) cost players on this list because Ottawa owns the Caps’ 2024 second round pick as a result of the trade where the Caps acquired Connor Brown.

Ultimately, you could likely find a better trade package to offer the team that holds the rights to a restricted free agent you want to acquire. Additionally, if you acquire the RFA’s rights in a trade, you can also offer them eight year contracts.

Do the Caps try to offer sheet a RFA this summer?

I would put this in the category of highly unlikely probability. Not only do the Capitals not have a ton of cap space at the moment, splurging on a higher end player in restricted free agency means less draft capital to use either as trade chips to improve the current roster, or selecting players in the draft that can help your team long term, with cost controlled contracts for the first three years of their NHL careers.

For historical purposes, the Capitals have only submitted one offer sheet in their entire history going back to 1974. That was for the Edmonton Oilers’ Dave Manson, and that offer sheet was matched by the Oilers.

Could the Caps target RFAs who are slightly lower value players as a means to get some roster depth? Sure. I would just expect that the Capitals either trade for their rights, or see what players are non-tendered by their former clubs (like Dylan Strome), and make moves there.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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7 Responses to Why Offer Sheets To Restricted Free Agents Have Become So Rare, And Could They Make A Comeback?

  1. Anonymous says:

    The rare it’s of offer sheets is a somewhat recent development, as they used to be much more prevalent. I get the pull in these. The NHLPA loves them because it frees up their players, and the NHL probably hates them. The tug-of-war on the rules between the league and the NHLPA is likely fierce, and maybe the latest CBA has made it even more difficult to achieve.

  2. novafyre says:

    No good rumors on our two vacant assistant coaching positions? I had expected to hear of interest expressed (by either side) or possibly even interviews by now.

  3. Prevent Defense says:

    Research project for NovaCapsFans students:
    Look up the Dustin Penner “offer sheet” fiasco about 2007 [EDM and ANA]
    Player became massively overpaid, and responded with massive under-production

    GMs in current NHL need their head examined if they enter Offer Sheet imbroglios
    Offer Sheet is a guaranteed bridge-burner. It’s also a sign of a poorly-skilled GM

    I’m not worried about GM Mac doing Offer Sheet. Way too intelligent for Offer Sheet. Way too much pending young talent that can be acquired by non-dubious methods

  4. redLitYogi says:

    There’s little doubt in my mind Sebastien Aho would’ve been worth the cost to the Habs had the Canes not matched. But I think the Kotkaniemi move made a lot of sense even if it wasn’t for revenge. They got a player picked 3rd overall that they liked. They’re not likely to get any picks in the near term anywhere below the 25th pick so they win on that score. And by signing him for just one year, they got to retain team control and then sign him longer term for a much better price.

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