After six years without an NHL Offer Sheet, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin shocked the hockey world with the announcement that the team had signed Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet. While we wait for the Carolina Hurricanes decision on the offer sheet, we can look back at NHL history, and how we got to where we are today.
The NHL Offer Sheet: The Beginnings – Gary Nylund & Geoff Courtnall
The first NHL offer sheet came down in 1986 when Gary Nylund, a rugged defender for the Toronto Maple Leafs was in a contract dispute with Leafs owner Harold Ballard. Norris Division rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks swooped in and signed Nylund to a three-year, $620,000 offer sheet. The Leafs were unwilling to match and Nylund was off to Chicago. The compensation for the move turned out to be Ken Yaremchuk, Jarome Dupont, and a fourth-round pick in the 1987 NHL Draft.
The NHL would wait another two years before another offer sheet attempt was made. The Summer of 1988 saw the Edmonton Oilers trade away their star Wayne Gretzky, in what was largely a cash grab move by Peter Pocklington. The Rangers, sensing vulnerability and watching Geoff Courtnall being unable to sign a deal in Edmonton, attempted to snatch away the young forward with an offer sheet. The Oilers would trade the rights to Courtnall to the Washington Capitals, who would then match the deal. Such a move of trading the player’s rights during the seven-day window was possible at the time but is not possible today.
The Early 90s: The St. Louis Years
The NHL offer sheet would really come into vogue in the early 90s, and there was one team that used it more than any other, the St. Louis Blues. The Blues saw offer sheets as a way to try and lure away young, established stars to the team, simply by flexing some financial muscle. The Blues under general manager Ron Caron were very successful in luring the players they wanted to the midwest. Ultimately, they had little team success to show for the moves.
St. Louis kicked things up a notch in 1990. They signed the first legitimate star player to an offer sheet. Scott Stevens was the cornerstone of the Washington Capitals defence. He was emerging as one of the best defencemen in the NHL. He had already an ability to be an offensive force with a 72-point season. Stevens had four years above 60 points in Washington. He was also developing a reputation as one of the most feared hitters in hockey. The Blues gave Stevens a four-year, $5.1 million offer sheet. The Capitals could not match, and five first-round picks were awarded as compensation.
St. Louis would continue this poaching strategy in 1991. This lead to two very bizarre situations. First, they signed winger Dave Christian from the Boston Bruins. The Bruins would retaliate by signing Dave Thomlinson, and Glen Featherstone from St. Louis just four days later. This situation was eventually resolved with all three players changing teams and the Blues picking up extra draft picks as compensation in what was essentially a two-for-one (plus picks) trade.
However, St. Louis wasn’t done there, as they would make an offer sheet to the New Jersey Devils emerging power forward Brendan Shanahan, that same summer. This would create a problem as the compensation for Shanahan should have been set at another five first-round picks, and the Blues were out of picks due to the Stevens offer. The Blues offered Curtis Joseph, and Rod Brind’Amour along with a couple of late-round draft picks as compensation, but the Devils would not budge. Eventually, the issue went before an arbitrator, who awarded Scott Stevens to the Devils, nullifying the Blues 1990 move.
The Blues weren’t done there though. They would try to sign Michel Goulet away from the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Hawks matched the four-year offer.
1991: The Year of the Offer Sheet
While that ended the Blues involvement that summer, 1991 was the busiest year of offer sheets ever. We would also see Adam Graves move from Edmonton to the Rangers, with Troy Mallette as compensation. Following that, we saw Kevin Stevens signed to an offer sheet by the Bruins, and the Pittsburgh Penguins matched.
Things would continue the next summer with a couple of matched offer sheets. The Oilers would keep defenceman Dave Manson, matching an offer sheet from the Washington Capitals. Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, the Jets were having a hard time signing one of their prize draft picks, future NHL superstar Teemu Selanne. The Calgary Flames would submit an offer sheet to try and steal the young Selanne, but the Jets would match and Selanne would go on to become the highest scoring rookie in history and win the Calder Trophy. It was the start of a Hall of Fame career.
Back to St. Louis
The Blues were back at in 1993, trying to sign Marty McSorley away from the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings would match the offer. As would the Capitals, when the San Jose Sharks tried to sign away Kelly Miller.
The Sharks would follow that up with an offer to Craig Simpson of the Edmonton Oilers for three-years and $3.09 million. This was the first offer sheet to try a really creative salary structure as the Sharks put a ton of money into the deal as a signing bonus. The league invalidated the offer and stated that it was illegally structured, keeping Simpson an Oiler for a few more weeks. When the Buffalo Sabres threatened to make a second offer sheet on Simpson, Edmonton traded the forward to Buffalo, rather than go through the situation again.
In the summer of 1994, an NHL lockout was looming, but not even that could stop the St. Louis Blues and their offer sheet madness. First they signed Petr Nedved who was involved in a contract holdout with the Vancouver Canucks, giving Craig Janney and a second-round pick as compensation. The Blues still stinging over the loss of Scott Stevens, would sign him to a second offer sheet. However the Devils would match, and after the lockout cancelled the first half of the season, they would see Stevens lead the team to their first Stanley Cup in 1995. There were also minor deals that summer seeing Mike Craig go to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Steven Rice to the Hartford Whalers.
Amazingly after all that, the Blues still weren’t done. In 1995 they would sign Shayne Corson from the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers declined to match and two first rounders were awarded as compensation. The Oilers would trade these two first rounders back to the Blues for Curtis Joseph and Mike Grier.
The Blues under “the Professor” Ron Caron, tried to use the offer sheet to build a Stanley Cup contender. They tried to poach the best young players of others. However, the loss of draft picks and other young players as compensation de-railed the plan. The Blues were a middle of the road team in these years. They would stop with the offer sheets, for 13 years at least, and eventually build a legitimate Cup contender (though they could never seem to get over that hump) in the early 2000s. This was done through smart UFA acquisitions and trades and not on the backs of the RFA offer sheet.
The 1995-2004 CBA, The Mega NHL Offer Sheet Years
Following the 1994 lockout the restrictions on front-loading contracts and massive signing bonuses, that created the issue with the Craig Simpson offer sheet, were eased. What we would see next was a series of attempts that used massive front-loading of their offer sheets in order to try and discourage the other team from matching the offer. The next wave of big money offer sheets created a huge ripple effect in the industry and led, in part, to a league-wide skyrocket in salaries.
The first mega-money, front-loaded deal came when the Chicago Blackhawks made a five-year, $17.2 million offer sheet on Keith Tkachuk of the Winnipeg Jets. Despite the Jets well-known financial problems at the time, the team decided to match the offer. The massive payouts increased the burden on the Manitoba franchise and the continued escalation of salaries, combined with a weak Canadian Dollar, and an older outdated arena led to the Jets move to Phoenix at the conclusion of the following season.
In 1997 the Rangers sensed weakness in Colorado and made a massive offer sheet to Joe Sakic of three years and $21 million. The deal featured a $15 million signing bonus and $2 million in annual salary. The Avalanche were playing in the outdated McNicholls arena at the time. They were waiting for the new Pepsi Center to be built. Revenues for the team were low because of the arena. The Rangers thought that the Avalanche would have a tough time coming up with such a payout. The Avalanche were able to make it work and kept their long0time captain by matching the offer sheet.
Later that summer the Flyers were successful with an NHL offer sheet as their five-year, $16.5 million offer to Tampa Bay centre Chris Gratton was not matched by the club. Gratton was the third overall pick in the 1993 Entry Draft and after a 30-goal season in Tampa appeared to be growing into the elite power forward many thought he could be. The Flyers hoped he could provide a dynamic duo with then star centre Eric Lindros. The compensation, in this case, was four first-round picks, which were promptly traded back from Tampa Bay to Philly for Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis. Gratton was seen as a disappointment in Philly and after paying his huge signing bonus and having him for one year, he was traded back to Tampa for Renberg. He would never again score 30 goals.
Also in 1997, the Maple Leafs attempted to sign the Canucks prize prospect, Mattias Ohlund who was drafted 13th overall in 1994 and was in a contract dispute with the club. The Leafs offered the young Swedish blueliner five years and $10 million in base salary, plus a $7.5 million signing bonus. The Canucks choose to match the deal.
Our last offer sheet prior to the 2004 lockout, came in February 1998. Sergei Fedorov was involved in a contract dispute with the Detroit Red Wings. Now Peter Karmanos, the owner of the Hartford Whalers, was involved in a non-NHL related business dispute with Mike Illitch, owner of the Red Wings, at the same time. Karmanos, seeing the opportunity to take a shot at his rival, put together a front-loaded, six-year, $38 million offer for the Russian Superstar. Illitch and the Red Wings matched. They went on to win the 1998 and 2002 Stanley Cups with Fedorov as a key member of those teams. The victory in 2002 would come in a five-game Cup final victory over the Karmanos owned Carolina Hurricanes.
There would be no other offer sheets that followed the massive Fedorov offer, until the new CBA. Seeing the escalating costs, both in compensation and in massive front-loaded salaries, teams simply stopped using them. Star restricted free agents were no longer targetted in this way, and even the lower tier restricted free agents couldn’t get any love as guys like Ron Tugnutt and Stu Grimson did, interspersed with these bigger deals.
Following the 2004-05 lockout, we once again saw a more strategic use of the NHL offer sheet begin to emerge. While they weren’t done often (and many would argue not nearly often enough), salary cap constraints made the possibility of unmatched offer sheets a bigger possibility. The reduction in compensation in the 2005 CBA also helped.
Philadelphia and then general manager Bobby Clarke brought about the return of the offer sheet with a one-year, $1.9 million offer to Ryan Kesler, who was then a young player on the Canucks. While many could see the promise of Kesler, the reality was that this was a very large contract for a player who was essentially a third liner at the time. The Canucks ultimately choose to match the offer. Kesler would grow into one of the team’s leaders in the following years.
In 2007, the Edmonton Oilers got involved. The Oilers were looking to improve their offence and had a big need for a goal-scoring winger. Kevin Lowe, general manager of the Oilers, made a number of offers on unrestricted free agents and was having a tough time luring them to Edmonton after the Chris Pronger and Michael Peca fiascoes the previous summer. Lowe opened up the vault and made a massive offer to Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres. Vanek was coming off a 40-goal campaign. he was seen as one of the up and coming young snipers in the NHL. The seven-year $50 million offer was considered massive. The tight-budget Sabres (who lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury as unrestricted free agents that summer) were thought to be vulnerable. However, the Sabres decided they had bled enough talent for one year. They managed to retain their young star by matching the offer.
Offer Sheets Get Ugly
Not to be deterred, Lowe targeted another young star. This time signing Dustin Penner of the then Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks, to a five-year, $21.5 million offer sheet. This initiated the long-running feud between then-Ducks general manager Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe. Many harsh words would be spoken publicly between the two in the coming years. Burke, also needing to pay young stars Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and limited by the salary cap, decided to let Penner go to the Oilers and take the 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks owed to him as compensation.
In 2008 we had another mini-war. The Vancouver Canucks signed David Backes of the St. Louis Blues to a three-year, $7.5 million offer sheet. The Blues would match the deal and retaliated by signing Steve Bernier of the Canucks to a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet. This was the Blues first offer sheet since 1995. The Canucks would also match the offer. Backes would go on to become a 30-goal scoring number-one centre for the Blues, while Bernier would leave Vancouver unceremoniously as a minor part in a deal for Keith Ballard. He would eventually become a fourth liner in New Jersey before falling out of the league.
Strategic Offer Sheets
In 2010 we saw the Blackhawks, coming off a cup run that saw stars like Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane earn significant bonus money in their contracts and push the Hawks into salary cap jail. The Hawks were forced to trade away their important depth pieces such as Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. They also sent Cristobal Huet to play in Europe. The Sharks pounced, submitting a four-year, $14 million offer on restricted free agent defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson. This offer would be matched by the Hawks, who were then forced to walk away from the arbitration award made to Antti Niemi, their cup winning goalie. The Sharks would benefit by grabbing the Finnish netminder as a UFA.
The Flyers Strike On Shea Weber
In the summer of 2012, the Nashville Predators watched star defenceman Ryan Suter leave for the Minnesota Wild on a front-loaded deal worth $98 million. The Philadelphia Flyers sensed weakness and gave Shea Weber an offer-sheet with a 14-year term and worth $110 million. The deal included a $13 million signing bonus payable on July 1st on each of the first four years. This was followed by two $8 million bonuses payable in years five and six. The deal was clearly designed to force the cash-strapped Predators to make a tough decision. After raising additional capital, the Predators matched the deal. Weber would eventually be traded to the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2016.
Up until Monday, there had only been one offer sheet after the 2012 lockout. Following the resolution of the league’s labour issues, the Colorado Avalanche were having issues re-signing restricted free agent Ryan O’Reilly. The Flames signed O’Reilly to a two-year deal worth $10 million. The Flames back-loaded the deal with a $6.5 million salary in the second year. This was done to force the Avalanche to give O’Reilly a bigger qualifying offer, if they matched the deal. Colorado would match, keeping the eventual 2019 Selke and Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
All that brings us today and the offer submitted to Aho. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and where the star Finnish centre is playing next year.
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