The NHL has seen their contract negotiations evolve over the years, although no contract negotiation is quite as tense as those between an RFA and their club — and with the Los Angeles Kings and Tyler Toffoli at a seeming standstill in any contract talks, a number of teams around the league are perking up.
Restricted free agents are stuck somewhere in limbo; while they have no complete control over their destiny, the league has placed certain stipulations on what a team may and may not do when negotiating with a restricted free agent. For example, a player who elects to take his contract negotiations to arbitration holds the power to bring home a higher salary if fair market value — determined in arbitration — is higher than the contract his team would have offered him; conversely, if a player wants more than is fair, he’ll be stuck making less should the arbitrators award him a lower sum.
Arbitration limits a player to his team, though. Per the 2013 CBA, electing arbitration awards a player the amount determined — in other words, his team cannot stand him up on it — but he also can’t reject the offer and head elsewhere.
Restricted free agents do have another option, though.
If a player meets the requirements to be a restricted free agent — which are that he’s under 27 by July 1st of that calendar year, have played in a certain number of games (80 for skaters, 28 for goaltenders), have been signed to at least one NHL contract in the past, and have received a qualifying offer from his current NHL team by the deadline (either June 25th or the Monday after the NHL Entry Draft, whichever comes later) — he has the option to sign an ‘offer sheet’.
Offer sheets are submitted to players by any of the other 29 teams in the NHL. Players can receive as many offer sheets — which, as the name suggests, offer a certain value and length contract to the player — as the league’s teams wish to send his way. Once he has signed one, though, his current NHL club has the option to keep him anyway — if they match the offer sheet he signed within seven days of the player signing it, there’s nothing he can do. He must take the amount and term of the offer sheet from his current NHL team.
Since the first offer sheet was signed by Gary Nylund in 1986 (offered by the Chicago Blackhawks for $620,000 over three years, which the Toronto Maple Leafs refused to match), thirty-four other NHL players have opted to take this route. Some — like Steve Bernier, Ryan O’Reilly, David Backes, and even Teemu Selanne — were matched by their clubs; others — such as Steven Rice, Dustin Penner, and Brendan Shanahan — failed to get matched, and these RFA’s skated off to their new clubs.
Of course, an offer sheet doesn’t come free to a team who uses one to win a player. Should a team fail to match a signed offer sheet, the team that offered the contract is required to give up graduated compensation based on the contract value. The higher the contract, the better the compensation — ranging from a third round pick to four first round picks for a contract worth $8.410M AAV or higher — and for some teams, that’s a pretty big risk. Teams also run the risk of alienating other GM’s, particularly those in cap-strapped situations.
The Los Angeles Kings, of course, aren’t the only team in this situation. Tyler Toffoli may be one of the best cap-strapped RFA forwards on the market, but the Boston Bruins haven’t signed pending RFA defenseman Dougie Hamilton to an extension either — and Brandon Saad, winger for the Chicago Blackhawks, is another player teams may be salivating over.
With Toffoli’s admittance that he doesn’t know ‘where things stand’ in his contract negotiations, teams may be hungry to extend him an offer sheet. The Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes are both greedily snapping up young talent from teams with bottlenecks in their depth charts or tough cap situations; either club could be willing to sign Toffoli to an offer sheet high enough that the Kings can’t afford to match it, justifying the loss of a draft pick or two as necessary casualties for a proven top line forward.
The Kings may have just entered themselves in the draft lottery with their missed playoff appearance, but they’ve been a powerful team for quite some time — and with the cap situation sitting where it is, there are plenty of other teams that may be willing to strike while the iron’s still hot.