The art of the offer sheet is all but dead in the NHL. As The Athletic’s Craig Custance writes, there have only been eight offer sheets in the salary cap era, all but one have been matched, and none have been signed since 2013. It remains a shadowy threat for every GM looking to lock up his young restricted free agents, but at this point is more myth than reality. Custance even conducted a poll of nine GM’s that implied a feeling across the league that no offer sheets are coming this off-season. Even with attractive targets like the cap-strapped Detroit Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin, the Calgary Flames’ newly-acquired Noah Hanifin, and a key piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young core, William Nylander, none of the GM’s could see a realistic spot where making an offer would be worth the effort as the team would always be able to match.
What about thinking outside the box and not looking at the top targets but at the team most unlikely to match? The Pittsburgh Penguins are not getting any sympathy from teams around the league. Winners of two of the last three Stanley Cups, a playoff team every year since 2007, and home to the best player in the league, the Penguins have had a great run and it’s unlikely to end any time soon. While many teams fear the backlash associated with poaching young players through offer sheets, Pittsburgh is perhaps the only team in the league that could come under attack and no one else would mind. The Penguins have also put themselves in a position that makes them easy prey. CapFriendly currently estimates that the team has just $745K in cap space heading into next season. Even if Jimmy Hayes fails to break camp or Zach Aston-Reese is sent down – the only foreseeable options, the Pens are still left with no more than $1.5MM in space and will need room to maneuver during the season.
Pittsburgh has just one restricted free agent left to re-sign: 23-year-old goaltender Tristan Jarry. Jarry has not been considered an offer sheet threat for a couple of reasons. The first is simply that he has yet to prove that he is a true NHL-caliber goalie. Jarry was a star at the junior level with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings and was drafted in the second round by the Penguins in 2013. His first two pro seasons were spent entirely in the AHL, expect for one spot start in Pittsburgh, and he made the transition look easy, posting strong numbers through 78 combined games. Last season was a deviation from that smooth upward trajectory. The departure of Marc-Andre Fleury left Jarry as the primary backup to starter Matt Murray and the NHL level proved to be a little more difficult. Jarry had an up-and-down season with streaks of both good and bad play. He also struggled when he was returned to the AHL in favor of Casey DeSmith or briefly Antti Niemi. However, at the end of the season Jarry’s line of a .908 save percentage, 2.77 goals against average, and .609 quality start percentage in 26 NHL appearance was more than respectable for his first year in the bigs. Has he proven without a doubt that he can be an NHL regular or reliable backup? No, but the potential is there.
The other reason that Jarry would seem to be a strange offer sheet target is that he is waiver-exempt. Jarry is too young and inexperienced to have lost his waiver protection. This means that a team could hypothetically offer far above market value and multiple years and the Penguins could simply match it and stash Jarry in the minors without a second thought. The only problem is that Pittsburgh especially could not leave Jarry in the AHL for a whole season, nevertheless multiple. Since Murray became a fixture in net for the Penguins in 2015-16, he has made 111 appearances in three seasons with no more than 49 games in any year. In that same time, the Penguins have used six other goaltenders. Excluding Fleury, who was the starter in Murray’s first season and split time with him the following year, Jarry, DeSmith, Niemi, Mike Condon and Jeff Zatkoff have had to make 59 appearances over the past three years – more than half of Murray’s games played. Pittsburgh’s injury-prone starter clearly needs multiple quality options behind him until he can prove himself over a full season. DeSmith, who admittedly outplayed fellow rookie Jarry last season but in 12 fewer starts, may struggle to even backup Murray this season, nevertheless replace him for short stretches with untested minor league journeyman John Muse – the only other Penguins goalie – as the backup. The Penguins need a third-string goalie who costs as close the minimum against the cap as possible. If Jarry was to sign an offer sheet for even $1.5MM AAV, Pittsburgh would struggle to move that contract back and forth or keep him on the roster all year long. A team with ample cap space and a well-off ownership group could easily improve on that offer as well. Only moving out salary or injured reserve space would conceivably allow the Penguins to keep Jarry at that price or more.
At the end of the day, an offer with just the right amount of salary and term would be hard for the Penguins to match in their current state. Sure, they could simply sign a proven veteran free agent to a minimum deal and move on, but losing a promising young netminder would be a blow. On the other side of the table, it would only cost a team at most a third-round pick – the compensation for any deal with an AAV under $2.03MM – to land a young, high-ceiling goalie who is still waiver-exempt. If Jarry excels at the NHL level, they made a great deal; if he struggles, he can be sent to the AHL risk-free for further development and may still turn out be a great deal. The rest of the league would hardly mind seeing Pittsburgh and wheeler-dealer GM Jim Rutherford baffled by an offer sheet as well. It seems to be a win-win. Will it happen?