One of the big discussions going around the hockey world this week has been whether or not a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs should take a chance on an offer sheet for restricted free agent defenseman Colton Parayko. The offer sheet strategy, while allowed by the NHL collective bargaining agreement, is generally frowned upon in the sport. There is an unwritten code that you don’t poach other teams’ young talent. Those who do often pay the price by having their own prospects come under fire. There is also an actual price to pay for the practice, as offer sheets come with a steep compensatory formula. The 2017 compensation levels, just recently announced, dictate that a team would owe a third-round pick for a contract not even worth $2MM annually, while a contract north of $4MM per year would cost a first-rounder plus.
So why would a team like the Leafs entertain going after Parayko? And if they’re going to face the risk of an offer sheet, why Parayko and not another defenseman like Shayne Gostisbehere or Nikita Zadorov or even star forwards like David Pastrnak or Leon Draisaitl? The reason: Parayko represents the best free agent, restricted or unrestricted, at his position – right-shot defenseman.
Calling the right-shot defenseman grouping for this years unrestricted free agency pool “weak” is an understatement. Other than Kevin Shattenkirk, Parayko’s teammate in St. Louis and possibly the biggest name on the market at any position, you would be hard-pressed to find a single top-four defenseman and only a hand full of bona fide starters altogether. Cody Franson, under-utilized in Buffalo the past two years, is likely the next man up and the painstaking wait of the 2015 off-season showed how willing teams were to meet his salary demands. Toronto specifically already has had experience with Franson and know he is not the answer to their struggles. Behind Franson comes half of the Calgary Flames 2016-17 blue line: Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, and trade deadline acquisition Michael Stone. The trio played a combined 165 man-games for the Flames this season, with Engelland and Stone playing each game of their first-round sweep by the Anaheim Ducks, and combined for just 50 points. Stone has the greatest upside, but hasn’t proved himself as a reliable top-four option and has struggled with injuries. The Flames were desperate to get Wideman out of town and Engelland has become a one-dimensional player in recent years. Next, there is Roman Polak, another former Maple Leaf. The team seems to have ruled out re-signing the veteran blue-liner and other teams should follow suit. Yannick Weber, currently playing in the Stanley Cup Final with the Nashville Predators, picked a good year to be a free agent, as his effective albeit unexciting style of play should still pay off in a weak class. After Weber? Matt Tennyson from Carolina? Paul Postma from Winnipeg? That is basically it.
This is why the Parayko-to-Toronto talk will continue. Those teams in need of a right shot near the top of their defensive depth are largely out of luck in 2017. Once Shattenkirk is off the board, which should be right away on July 1st, there are slim pickings for the rest. Best wishes to whatever righty D-needy team misses out on Shattenkirk, Franson, Stone, and Weber. There are simply no options. Unless, of course, you dip into restricted free agency. Beyond Parayko, another option is Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz,who put up a whopping 51 points in the regular season and has 11 points (and counting) in the playoffs. The Penguins would likely be unable to match an expensive contract for Schultz if he were presented with a lucrative offer sheet. After back-to-back strong campaigns, New Jersey’s Damon Severson has proven to be a legitimate offensive defenseman and could entice the right team. Jake Dotchin had a successful rookie season, but the Lightning have a world of cap problems to solve this summer and would struggle to fit an offer sheet-inflated contract for Dotchin into the mix. Finally, even if both Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk survive the Expansion Draft in Florida, the Panthers may simply choose one over the other if an offer sheet were involved. The options are plenty on the restricted side of free agency, but the question remains whether any teams will be bold enough to go that route.