I think we can all agree that the Shea Weber offer sheet did not in any way usher in a new era of fun-and-gun offer sheeting of the league’s various ridiculously high-quality and valuable restricted free agents and was never going to do so.
The reasons why are obvious: Philadelphia is a team that is essentially capable of printing its own money, and Weber is a player who despite being an RFA is also one of the three best defensemen in hockey who puts up crazy points as well. If ever a player was worthy of the kind of insane offer sheet to which the Flyers signed him this summer it’s… well it’s probably not anybody, but he’s the closest that would ever get to the point where he could sign an offer sheet at all. He’s worth just about league max, he got just about that much. It’s all fine and on the up-and-up. But what I don’t understand now that there’s a new CBA in place is why notable RFAs aren’t being courted constantly by other teams’ general managers.
The reasons it would be a really good and smart idea to do this are three-fold, where before they were merely two-fold. The first is that getting an RFA of any good quality only costs you a couple draft picks (at least, it will if you have ‘em lying around, which isn’t always the case) and the money and years on the deal. For a proven NHL player of some notable quality, which is what each of the current trio of RFAs — PK Subban, Jamie Benn and Ryan O’Reilly — absolutely are, that cost is low. Players like that don’t grow on trees and you’re lucky to get them in the draft. They should, in theory, be pursued as frequently as any other highly-sought unrestricted free agent.
The second is that it’s allowed in the CBA and is as legitimate a way of team-building as any other. The fact of the matter is that when July 5 rolls around, the number of players on the market who are as good as Benn, O’Reilly or Subban will be minimal at best. Probably nonexistent. Attempting to sign them to an offer sheet (and to be fair, for all we know teams have tried and been told not to bother or whatever) is something any general manager should do as part of their job, because not doing so is essentially not doing the job to the best of their possible ability under the CBA. Everyone bagged on Brian Burke for having his own rules when dealing with the letter of the law — he’s dumb for having a longer roster freeze and not asking guys to waive no-trade clauses what an idiot ugh!!!! — but literally every other general manager in the league does the same thing by not trying to sign RFAs to offer sheets. Say what you want about the practice; that it unnecessarily inflates salaries for top guys and eliminates the NHL’s middle class in doing so, that it is to some extent responsible for the kinds of cap-circumventing deals that led directly to this last lockout. Those are legitimate criticisms if you don’t like the idea, but nonetheless, it’s in the CBA, and if you’re a GM who doesn’t use it, then you’re intentionally handicapping your team. No one in hockey is dumb enough to value draft picks that highly. Well, that’s obviously not true, but no one should be.
The third wrinkle is what’s brought on by the new CBA and some fiscal realities for Colorado and Dallas, especially. Maybe you can’t pry Subban from Montreal even if he’s willing to sign your offer sheet because the Habs are sitting on a bigger pile of treasure than Smaug and will match or improve upon any contract you can offer in both money and term — thanks for NOTHING six-year limit for other teams’ free agents! — even if they wouldn’t do so happily, and might create some uncomfortable cap implications to worry about when it drops somewhat significantly this summer. Dallas and Colorado, on the other hand? You gotta think Benn and O’Reilly are vulnerable to being poached, and both would make fine additions to any team that would have them. Locking up good, young talent (O’Reilly is 21, Benn 23) for a maximum of six years at whatever they cost seems like a pretty smart investment if you’ve got the cap room, because it’s not so clear that either of them have the money or willingness to spend it. The fact is both should have been signed a while ago, and for whatever reason were not, whether it was a player holdout (my suspicion) or the team deciding to wait and see what the new CBA brought. Well it’s here, and it brought more “cost certainty” (© G. Bettman, 2004-05) where player contracts are concerned, so it’s even tougher to understand why there’s not a line around the block.
Of course, the obvious answer to that is that despite the new CBA the whiff of borderline-collusion (or whatever you want to call it) still lingers. Could be these guys aren’t getting signed by other teams because a gentleman’s agreement exists between nearly all general managers in the NHL and any beefs related to it may at some point be settled in a barn. Then there’s the threat that these teams could swoop in and do the same thing to you that you did to them: Beef up the prices for your own RFAs with ludicrous offer sheets when it comes time for you to sign them. Gamesmanship, turnabout is fair play, that kinda thing. I get that concern. But under the new CBA, at least in the next few years, the flexibility to do that while waiting for existing contracts to clear out isn’t going to be easy, and at any rate, you probably don’t have any RFAs that are worth what O’Reilly or Benn (or Subban, on the outside) will be. These are guys that are worth whatever risk you’ll take on, by any measure. So just do your job and sign ‘em. You’ll improve your team and everything. I promise.