We’re now several weeks into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to continue our new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Today, we’ll each give our thoughts on potential offer sheet fireworks.
Q: Which players could be offer sheet candidates this offseason?
Brian La Rose:
I’ve long thought that it’s the lower-priced players that make sense as offer sheet targets rather than the ones for top talent and perhaps this will be the year where that happens considering the potentially lower salary cap.
The Rangers are a team that could be hit hard by that which leaves someone like Anthony DeAngelo at risk. He’s having a breakout year offensively but with Alexandar Georgiev and Ryan Strome needing new deals plus Kevin Shattenkirk’s buyout cost jumping, they may have a hard time keeping him which makes him a potential piece. At the lower end, Brendan Lemieux could be an option as New York will want him to take a cheaper short-term deal which leaves them vulnerable to a longer-term offer.
Chicago could be vulnerable on the cap, especially if their currently injured veterans are cleared to come back. In particular, they probably can’t afford to give Dylan Strome a long-term offer and can use his ineligibility for arbitration to try to force that direction. But if he wants a long-term deal, he may have to take an offer sheet to get it.
There’s no guarantee that there will be one this offseason but the pending cap situation makes it more of a realistic option than it usually is.
I feel like many people are talking about teams making big offers to the New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal, but I can’t really see that as an option for teams. While there was one offer sheet last year that went to Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, I really can’t see teams allowing their franchise player to leave for any reason. Even if Montreal had made a bigger offer, it seems hard to believe that the Hurricanes would have let Aho go. The same would go for Barzal. After losing John Tavares to free agency, there is no way Lou Lamoriello would allow Barzal to leave.
The only way that a team would be able to pull off a successful offer sheet would be to attack a team right up against the cap with a mid-level player with a big offer. Teams need to focus on a team like the Boston Bruins and give an offer sheet to someone like Jake Debrusk, who with a solid offer, might outprice himself on a team full of expensive veterans. The question is whether a player like Debrusk is worthy of a solid offer that might overwhelm the cap of the Bruins as he isn’t necessarily looked upon as a franchise player. However there is a much better chance of success than going after a franchise face.
I have always felt that an offer sheet is a tool of opportunity. It is not necessarily best-used to try to outbid a competitor for one of the best RFA’s on the market, but instead to take advantage of a team struggling against the cap or an internal budget. Should the 2020-21 salary cap come in below the estimation, a number of teams will be in that situation this year. For those lucky enough not to be left scrambling by an uncertain offseason, they could go hunting for valuable RFA’s on troubled teams.
No team is more at risk than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa is lacking space heading into the off-season with a trio of prize RFA’s in need of new deals. I feel one of these three – Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak – is the most likely to sign an offer sheet. Not only can the Bolts not afford to overpay for these players without dismantling their veteran core, but each player also knows that they stand a better chance at playing a bigger role almost anywhere other than with the uber-deep Lightning. It’s also hard to imagine any rival clubs feeling sorry about weakening Tampa, arguably the strongest lineup on paper in the NHL.
Two other situations that bear watching belong to the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs, who each have impressive, older rookies heading toward RFA status. 24-year-old Dominik Kubalik has been a revelation for the ’Hawks this season and is likely to be a Calder Trophy candidate. Now that he has proven himself, a competitor could feel comfortable extending a high-salary, long-term deal that Chicago cannot match. If the Blackhawks do match or are proactive with a substantial extension, it would require a shake-up in the roster or could potentially leave Dylan Strome susceptible to an offer sheet himself. Meanwhile, Ilya Mikheyev got off to a hot start in Toronto prior to a season-ending injury but showed in that short time that he is a legitimate NHL talent. The Leafs cannot stretch their young, but expensive roster any further and would have to choose between Mikheyev and another young star if pressed by a sizable offer sheet.
If I’m looking for a target to sign to an offer sheet, I’d never be going after a team’s best player. Those deals will almost certainly be matched, if they even sign it in the first place. No, I’m looking for that underlying group of talented players that may have not yet broken out or received the right opportunity. Obviously if a team is in a cap crunch it can be even more effective, but remember that the player has to be the one to sign it—as in, it has to be worth their while and you’re likely going to have to overpay.
One name that comes immediately to mind in that situation is Kevin Labanc of the San Jose Sharks. After an impressive 17-goal, 56-point 2018-19, Labanc bet on his own talent and agreed to a shocking one-year, $1MM deal with the Sharks. He’s now arbitration-eligible and an RFA once again, perhaps looking to make back some of the money he left on the table.
Now Labanc isn’t a sure thing. His production dropped this season to just 33 points in 70 games, but if you believe he can be a difference-maker on your powerplay and strengthen your middle-six, perhaps he’s the right one to target. The Sharks aren’t in a perfect cap situation because of their expensive, aging core, and are even down several draft picks after going deadline shopping the last few years. Maybe they would have to let Labanc go if he signed a substantial long-term offer sheet.