More Attention Likely for RFAs?Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
I know there’s this unwritten, mostly unspoken and mostly observed “rule” about not poaching RFA (restricted free agent) players from the rosters of other clubs around the league. And I use the word “mostly” only because some NHL general managers have thrown caution to the wind in recent years in tendering those offer sheets. And why not? This summer’s crop of unrestricted free agents is underwhelming. If you’re an NHL general manger, and your team doesn’t have kids in the pipeline ready to step in and capably fill vacancies at the NHL level, and you can’t make the trade winds blow your way, what other alternatives are available to you? Most teams seem intent on keeping their good, young players from reaching UFA status by locking them up to long-term deals when they reach RFA status, as the New York Islanders did earlier this week with Kyle Okposo. That’s generally smart thinking; draft well and then keep those well-performing draft choices as part of your team’s core well beyond the expiration of their initial entry level deals. Teams have until July 1 to negotiate exclusively with their impending RFA and UFA players. After that, the other 29 teams can get involved, and the compensation for poaching impending RFA players is beginning to seem more attractive. Last summer, the San Jose Sharks issued a four-year offer sheet worth $14 million to defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. For the Sharks, it was a win-win proposition. Either they get a quality player at a price and term they’re comfortable with (if the Hawks choose not to match), or they force one of their main conference competitors to creep closer to the salary cap ceiling than they probably planned on being (if the Hawks opt to match the deal, as they did). In matching the sheet tendered to Hjalmarsson, the Hawks were put in a position where they felt the need to walk away from goaltender Antti Niemi’s $2.75 million arbitration award. And that put the Sharks in position to land Niemi for themselves at a discounted, $2 million pricetag. This summer, if you can get an RFA player from another club to sign an offer sheet for an annual salary cap hit of $1,034, 249 or less and his current team opts not to match the deal, the signing team gets that player free and clear with no compensation due. Admittedly, you’re not going to get any impact players in that salary range. If you can pluck someone in the $1,034,249 to $1,567,043 range, all it costs you is a third-round choice in the NHL Entry Draft. If you issue an offer sheet with a salary cap hit between $1,567,043 and 3,134,088 for a soon-to-be RFA, all you surrender is a second-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft. For players whose annual cap hit falls between $3,134,088 and $4,701,131, the price is a first-rounder and a third-rounder. Washington has a pair of impending RFA players – goaltender Simeon Varlamov and defenseman Karl Alzner – who could be attractive to other NHL clubs in that lower (under $3.1 million) range. From $4,701,131 to $6,268,175 the price climbs to a first-, a second- and a third-rounder. From $6,268,175 to $7,835,219 the bounty is two firsts, a second and a third. Above the $7,835,219 threshold will cost you four first-rounders, one less than the Caps got when Scott Stevens inked a four-year sheet with an average annual value of $1.275 some 21 summers ago. It was 19 years ago this summer that then-Caps general manager David Poile issued the only offer sheet for an impending restricted free agent in Washington’s franchise history. Still seeking to fill the hole left by Stevens’ departure, the Caps offered Edmonton defenseman Dave Manson a three-year, $3.4 million deal (with a fourth-year option at $1.2 million), a contract that would have cost Washington three first-round draft picks. Oilers general manager Glen Sather matched the deal, but not before issuing some angry words for Poile and the Capitals. “I won’t let him go for three first-round picks,” Sather was quoted as saying in the July 3, 1992 edition of The Washington Post. “It was ridiculous for [Poile] to ever make the offer. All it does is drive up salaries around the league. According to that same edition of The Post, Sather also threatened to match the offer and then trade Manson to one of Washington’s rivals, a ruse Poile himself successfully pulled two years earlier in the wake of the Stevens signing. As the deadline approached for the Caps to match or not match St. Louis’ offer to Stevens, Poile had Blues’ GM Ron Caron on one phone line and Montreal GM Serge Savard on another, supposedly for the purpose of matching the Stevens deal and then immediately moving the defenseman to Montreal. Although Savard had already hung up, Poile convinced Caron that he’d move Stevens to the Habs unless the Blues were willing to give the Caps the late Peter Zezel and Mike Lalor in a deal for Geoff Courtnall. Caron bit on Poile’s bluff, making the Courtnall trade and getting Stevens, too. That sort of poker table gamesmanship seems to have vanished over the last couple of decades. I don’t expect we’ll see a return of that sort of subterfuge among NHL general managers when it comes to the handling of RFA offer sheets, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see more than one offer sheet floated to impending RFA players at some point this summer.
You may notice a subtle aesthetic change at Verizon Center this season when you make your first visit of the season. The Capitals have installed white protective netting behind both goals in each attacking zone to improve the sightlines for fans, vice president and general manager George McPhee