Every summer, fans anxiously await July 1st as free agency day in the NHL, a time when all NHLers who have played long enough to earn unrestricted free agent status get a chance to cash in on their hard work and luck. It's also the first day that teams may go after a different type of free agent, the restricted free agent (RFA). These players are free to sign wherever they would like, but that doesn't mean they'll end up with the team which signs them.
Welcome to the complicated world of restricted free agency.
What is Restricted Free Agency?
While there's a lot in the CBA about how players get to be RFAs and how teams can massage certain RFA considerations (such as arbitration rights), the basic rule of restricted free agency is that it happens with players who have enough experience to no longer be entry-level but who don't have enough experience to have earned the right to be a UFA. This means teams get something called the Right of First Refusal for RFAs.
While an RFA has the right to sign with whatever team he would like (unless arbitration cancels that right), the team which owns his rights has to be given the option to either match the exact same deal the player has been given or to accept draft pick compensation for allowing that player to leave for his new team. The compensation changes every year, but last year's figures will give you a pretty good idea of how this year's compensation tiers are going to look.
ICYMI: Here are the new draft pick compensation figures for teams signing RFAs to offer sheets pic.twitter.com/n5l3UxK77O— James Mirtle (@mirtle) July 2, 2014
Why Don't Teams Sign Other Teams' RFAs?
If you think about how to build a successful team, you need a bunch of key ingredients to all come together at the right time. Those key ingredients? Good hockey players. The problem is that good hockey players cost more money than bad ones (most of the time). The way the NHL helps alleviate this? Restricted free agency and entry-level contracts, which limit how much good hockey players can get paid during a time in which they're expected to prove that they're actually good.
The bottom line is that if you have a team full of players who are all paid their market value, you have what is very likely not much better than an average team. The very best teams take advantage of young, underpaid talent to give them a competitive advantage. By the time a player hits restricted free agency, only the team that owns his rights has the ability to underpay such a player.
The Added Cost of Market Value
Right off the bat with RFAs, you have a situation where a team cannot underpay a player whose rights they don't own. I mean, they CAN sign a player to a contract that any other team would love to have him at, but then the team that owns his rights would be absolutely stupid not to match the deal and claim that player's contract for themselves. Even if you pay market value, the team with the right of first refusal is likely to simply match your offer and keep the player while thanking you for signing him to such a fair deal.
This leaves only a third option in the vast majority of RFA cases: A team may overpay a player to the point where his original team cannot or will not match the deal. In this situation, the team that gets the player is now without the draft pick compensation they have to give up for the right to overpay such a player, and is also now stuck with a player who isn't worth what he's paid.
It's About Helping You, Not Hurting Them
The easy answer is that a shrewd GM would consistently try to give RFA players the kinds of deals that other teams will feel compelled to match, but aren't happy about having to give up, offering advantages such as shorter terms for players in exchange for accepting the smaller amounts of money RFAs are given (since many RFA deals become "bridge deals" where a team ends up paying a little more for a longer deal in order to effectively "buy" a few of that player's prime earning UFA years). This would get those players to UFA status quicker than they otherwise might.
Such a GM would effectively break the RFA advantage for that team and make their cap situation harder. The problem is that nothing happens in a vacuum and while there's no such thing as an unwritten rule among GMs, any GM willing to start hardballing his peers with such methods is asking to have them used on him as well. You can't put that genie back in the bottle.
The Rarity of a Sensible Deal
Fortunately, not all hope is lost on the RFA front. It actually is possible that a team can sign a restricted free agent from another team for a deal that makes sense. All that has to happen is that a team needs to find itself in a cap crunch situation where they simply can't afford all their talent at even market price. Additionally, you have to have the right conditions of having a team or teams with the assets and willingness to make these kinds of deals. Finally, you have to actually get these RFA players to sign.
The good news is that with the relatively small growth expected of the salary cap this summer, there are a few teams and players that could mean conditions are right.
RFA Offer Sheet Candidates
Cap Situation: About $6.5M to spend on 3F and 2D
Notable RFAs: Vladislav Namestnikov, Mark Barberio, Andrej Sustr, Luke Witkowski, Jonathan Marchessault
Analysis: The Bolts have one more season of eating Mattias Ohlund's $3.6M contract on LTIR so they can replace his cap hit. The 5 still-active defensemen they have will definitey be their top five. The three defensemen listed above aren't going to earn much consideration on the RFA market and aren't going to earn much compensation if/when they're signed. Vlad Namestnikov didn't have a "breakout" season going into his RFA year, but if a team were looking to put pressure on the Lightning, he'd be the best candidate.
Offer Sheet Chances: Very low
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Cap Situation: About $6.5M to spend on 4F and 1D
Notable RFAs: Alex Galchenyuk, Nathan Beaulieu
Analysis: Galchenyuk just finished putting up 46 points at age 21. He's a talented kid who's going to be due a decent raise. Nathan Beaulieu is a young hard-working defenseman who seems to be developing nicely. The Habs can afford to spend a bit more on these two and fill the rest of the roster with very low-paid players though. Their defensive corps is pretty well set at the top and aside from needing Galchenyuk, the rest of the forward spots can be filled with a depth rotation.
Offer Sheet Chances: Very low
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Cap Situation: About $10.8M to spend on 4F, 3D, and 1G
Notable RFAs: Ryan Spooner, Dougie Hamilton
Analysis: Boston still has two years of carrying Marc Savard's contract on LTIR, so they have a bit more space than first glance (already factored in above). However, they need eight players and have less than $11M to spend on them. Many of the spots are low-paying, but a few things add up. Dougie Hamilton is just 21 and already has 83 NHL points from the blueline. Aside from Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski being UFA defensemen, the Bruins need depth at defense and Hamilton could be just the kind of player to put a squeeze on their cap situation. Still, I think they're going to have enough space to make room for a sensible deal for Hamilton while still filling out their roster.
Offer Sheet Chances: Low
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Cap Situation: About $7M to spend on 6F and 4D
Notable RFAs: Marcus Kruger and Brandon Saad
Analysis: This looks like an absolute nightmare for Chicago, who have about $700K to spend per player. They'll be able to save space with youngsters here and there, but this team is going to have to shed salary to make space for the new deals given to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Marcus Kruger isn't exactly a key piece, but the secret is out on how good Saad is. Chicago is working from two advantages in the consideration of keeping RFAs though. For one, they're a championship-caliber team, which can drive down asking prices. Secondly, this is a team that has absolutely shown a willingness to cut existing contracts to make room. Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell, and Brent Seabrook can all be moved to make space.
Offer Sheet Chances: Decent, but not high
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Cap Situation: About $11.5M to spend on 7F and 1D
Notable RFAs: Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin
Analysis: The Rangers have only half as many forwards as they need. They'll be able to fill quite a bit of space with low-cost players, allowing them to save space for their better RFAs, but Stepan is going to demand a decent raise. Hagelin had something of a disappointing season, but a savvy GM might be able to force an uncomfortable decision on Glen Sather without breaking the bank.
Offer Sheet Chances: Low
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Cap Situation: About $14M to spend on 4F, 2D, and 1G
Notable RFAs: Vladimir Tarasenko, Jake Allen
Analysis: $2M per player spot open is better than many other clubs, but the Blues are a potential budget team and Vladimir Tarasenko put up 73 points in 77 games. He easily deserves to eat up a large chunk of their cap space all by himself. He could very well be worth giving the kind of offer sheet that costs a team two first-rounders, a second, and a third. For St. Louis, it's going to come down to budget.
Offer Sheet Chances: Somebody please get Tarasenko out of there.
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Cap Situation: About $15M to spend on 4F and 2D
Notable RFAs: Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco, Teemu Pulkkinen, Brendan Smith
Analysis: There's a decent chance that Smith won't be with the club next season and will be replaced with a defenseman with a cap hit below $700K. Nyquist will eat up his fair share of their remaining space while Pulkkinen and Jurco will likely not get much offer sheet consideration, still needing to prove themselves more at the NHL level. There's a handful of other take-it-or-leave-it type players who can be easily replaced. I just included the Wings because I wanted to point out that if Ken Holland starts playing RFA hardball, he's vulnerable to the same tactics.
Offer Sheet Chances: Crazier things have happened.
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Other teams considered:
Ottawa: The value-spending senators have both Zibanejad and Stone to pay
Minnesota: Weird goalie situation probably won't cost them Granlund
Los Angeles: Toffoli and Martin Jones are RFA, but the Kings have space
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All in all, I still don't think there's too high a risk that the offer sheets will fly this summer, but I think conditions are pretty close to being right for it to actually happen.