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"A PLAYER WHO IS NO LONGER CONSIDERED TO BE ENTRY-LEVEL, BUT DOES NOT QUALIFY AS AN UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT, BECOMES A RESTRICTED FREE AGENT WHEN HIS CONTRACT EXPIRES"
Restricted Free Agency in the NHL is a very flawed system and always was dating back to the pre-salary cap days. Trying to figure out what a player is worth on either a short or long-term deal upon the expiry of an entry-level contract can be very difficult to gauge at times. The biggest problem is that there are very limited arbitration rights for NHL players, as opposed to a sport like Major League Baseball. Say what you want about how MLB has an uncapped system, but at least when a player is in that range of having played his first 3 years and prior to free agency at least they have a structured system where on a yearly basis either have a salary that the player and team agree upon, or they exchange dollar figure amounts and an independent arbitrator decides what it is.
HERE IS THE COMPENSATION SCALE BASED ON CAP HIT:
$0 – $1,395,053: No Compensation
$1,395,054 – $2,113,716: 1x 3rd-Round-pick
$2,113,717 – $4,227,437: 1x 2nd-Round-pick
$4,227,438 – $6,341,152: 1x 1st-Round, 1x 3rd-Round-pick
$6,341,153 – $8,454,871: 1x 1st Round-pick, 1x 2nd Round-pick, 1x 3rd-Round-pick
$8,454,872 – $10,568,589: 2x 1st Round-picks, 1x 2nd Round-pick, 1x 3rd-Round pick
>$10,568,590 - and above: 4x 1st-Round-picks
If an RFA player hits July 1st unsigned like unrestricted free agents, other teams are allowed to sign these players to "offer sheets". Meaning that because a player of this category is subject to both compensation (based on a scale depending how much he is signed for) and right to match (his existing team has 7 days to either match the offer and keep him or accept the compensation and let him go to the team signing the offer sheet). Over the years, we have seen hundreds upon thousands of players go through the process without ever signing an offer sheet. In fact, there have only been 8 of them in total over the past 20 years. Why?
The General Managers in the NHL is like an old boys club. A lot of them have made trades with each other many times over the years, and do not like to burn bridges for future opportunities in player transactions. That my friends, is called COLLUSION. And it has been going on in this league for decades without the commissioner being able to prove it. "You don't touch my guys, I don't touch yours" and especially in a salary cap era where you would think signing these offer sheets would be used as an inflationary mechanism to drive up cap hits of your competitors. But 14 years into this hard-cap system, it has barely ever happened. A whole 8 times as I mentioned. When you have teams that have been known to losing money and still matching offers that have high front-loaded salaries in the early years of the deal along with signing bonuses and such, you just know there is no point to doing it.
The only time within the last 2 decades that an offer sheet got accepted was in 2007 when Brian Burke, then the GM of the Anaheim Ducks was livid when then-Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe signed Dustin Penner to a 5-year, $21.5M offer sheet that irked Mr. Burke so much that he wanted to have a fist-fight with Lowe out in a barn. This is the type of animosity that exists for any team touching another team's player and again while I still believe all of this to be borderline collusion, the non-signing of restricted free agents has been ignored for a very long time. It also doesn't help matters when young star players getting out of entry-level deals are signing for "open market" money, meaning they are getting paid like star player in or close to free agency which is not the case in other sports. It makes no sense with a team already owning their rights.
There have only been 3 offer sheets signed in this decade, all that were matched: Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2010, Shea Weber in 2012 and Ryan O'Reily in 2013 meaning that under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that was agreed upon in 2013 it has only happened once. But for whatever reason, fans and media around the hockey hotbed of Toronto believe that this is going to happen a lot this summer and the best example being used is the Toronto Maple Leafs being vulnerable to being forced to match an inflated offer sheet if they do not get young star winger Mitch Marner signed before July 1st. Now while this may be one of the rare occurrences it actually happens, are the Leafs really just going to let Marner walk for 4 1st Round Picks? Better question, do you actually think Marner will sign one of these offer sheets with another team? Really?
While one could argue that not every year is there a caliber of player available in RFA status like Marner, the offer sheet (like 99% of them) would be pointless knowing it is going to be matched. So why bother? Yes it would handcuff the Leafs salary cap situation forcing them to trade away a bit more salary then they had planned to before next season, but there is no chance another team does this and winds up acquiring Mitch Marner. Accepting the compensation would not be worth it at all, even if 4 1st Round picks sounds like a lot there is very little chance any one of those picks turn out to be anywhere near as good a player as Marner. There is no doubt that Toronto should have him signed before it gets to July 1st to avoid anything like this happen, but did any team even talk to the agent of William Nylander a year ago all the way to December 1st? No, they only contacted the Leafs management about a potential trade.
Supposedly general managers think about offer sheets all the time - and make scenarios in their head would it work. To me, this sounds way too "pie in the sky" and is wishful thinking. Keep dreaming, folks; signing restricted free agents to offer sheets are a myth that is simply not going to happen, because the one and only time it did happen where the team accepted to take multiple 1st Round picks (without trading other players back to that team to get the picks returned, which actually happened a few times) was when Scott Stevens went from the Washington Capitals to the St. Louis Blues for 5 1st Round Picks - and that was way back in 1990, almost 30 years ago. Oh and by the way, none of those 5 picks Washington got turned out to be anywhere near a player as Stevens. Pointless. Mythical.