As the timeline played out this past week, the Carolina Hurricanes took less than 24 hours to let the hockey world know what it knew from jump street, that they would match the Montreal Canadiens’ offer sheet to Sebastian Aho and keep their prized franchise center for five more years at $8.454 million annually.
Understandably, frustrated Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell couldn’t let the moment pass without throwing some shade, both in the direction of Habs GM Marc Bergevin and Aho’s agent, Gerry Johannson.
“The agent,” said Waddell, “sold a bill of goods.”
“The team,” added Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, “got manipulated into believing some things that might not have been there.”
What we have here is Exhibit A in why there is such a dearth of offer sheets extended to restricted free agents. The Habs took a stab — not a very good one, frankly, but totally in accordance with collective bargaining agreement guidelines and practices — only to have the grieving party kick, scream, and make everyone on the Montreal side of the transaction out to be a bunch of hockey hayseeds.
So, if you’re one of the other 29 NHL GMs who were not involved in this deal, what do you think your appetite would be to become the next guy to drop a sheet on another RFA? Answer: zero. Exactly the number of offer sheets, by the way, that were made over the previous five seasons.
No GMs really want to make RFA offers, first and foremost because they know offer sheets are usually a financial reach, and they also incur the kind wrath that Waddell and Dundon expressed. What made this failed transaction a little different was that the GM and owner made their disdain so public with their public stoning of Bergevin and Johannson.
Offer sheets have been part of the CBA for decades, long before the hard salary cap was instituted out of the lost season of 2004-05. In fact, it was the Hurricanes’ prior ownership that dropped a stunning six-year, $38 million sheet on flashy Detroit forward Sergei Fedorov during the 1998 Olympics. The Red Wings matched the offer, despite a heavy frontloading of salary that, no surprise, was also how Montreal shaped its offer 21-plus years later for Aho. The Hurricanes by this time next year will have paid Aho half of the $42.27 million he has been promised over these next five seasons.
In the cap era, only nine offer sheets have been tendered, and all have been matched, save for the Ducks prudently opting to allow Dustin Penner to walk to Edmonton in August 2007 for five years, $21.25 million. In the entire cap era, GMs are hitting .111 with their offer sheets. Not even the bottom of the Red Sox batting order could tolerate a guy with that kind of success at the plate.
The Habs’ offer failed on two important points:
1. The $8.454 million, though initially hard on the eyes, is virtually guaranteed to look like fair market value in a couple of years. Few teams, a number best characterized as zero, will allow a franchise player to walk today for a number that will bake easily into the cake in 24 months. Also, with a number this modest, the Hurricanes only would have received three draft picks — a first, a second, and a third — as compensation. No GM worth his weight in white socks is going to let a franchise player skip town for three chucks at the top 93 picks of the annual amateur entry dartboard.
2. The Hurricanes also were not pushed against the cap, something that can be a hinderance for teams forced to match offers. Dundon has made clear his philosophy that higher player payroll doesn’t necessarily equate to success, and he’s right. His low-budget squad made it to the Eastern Conference finals. But that didn’t mean he was cash-strapped or that he was unwilling to spend. Even with Aho’s money added as the club’s highest payroll line item, the Hurricanes were left with some $11 million in cap space. Offer sheets are viewed as predatory plays, despite the fact that they have been collectively bargained between owners and players. In that context, the Hurricanes were not weak prey. Had they been down to, say, their last $5 million in cap space, sure, different story. But even then Waddell likely would have matched and then moved a body or two to get the Hurricanes under the $81.5 million payroll max before opening night.
Now, what for the Habs? They can go shopping again, and an obvious target would be Toronto’s Mitch Marner, the sublime 22-year-old winger who is now guaranteed a minimum $8.454 million thanks to Aho’s payday (see above: baked into the cake).
The Leafs, busy offloading salary the last couple of weeks, now have about $3.8 million in space, and only Marner as their big ticket yet to sign. If the Habs were serious about landing him — something that must be questioned after the tepid offer to Aho — it would mean rolling out the $11 million-plus that the Rangers used last Monday to secure unrestricted free agent Artemi Panarin.
An offer that high would tap out all of Toronto’s remaining cap space, forcing GM Kyle Dubas to trim the salary hedge somewhere else, perhaps even move William Nylander (cap hit: $6.9 million), if he cared to retain Marner. Or, with an offer that rich, the compensation would be four first-round picks. Dubas could be inclined to accept the picks, albeit with the knowledge talents such as Marner, the No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft, are rare finds.
Sweeney has work to do on RFAs
With the UFA market turned to a low simmer, and training camps some two months on the horizon, the summer narrative for Boston will be GM Don Sweeney’s remaining cap space of slightly more than $10 million and the unfinished business of restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Danton Heinen.
It could be a long summer, dear readers.
Sweeney is loath to comment publicly on contract negotiations, not unlike his predecessor, Peter Chiarelli. However, he is much tighter with owner Jeremy Jacobs’s wallet than Chiarelli, whose only significant stalled negotiation during his tenure ultimately turned into the deal that sent reluctant signee Phil Kessel to Toronto for the pair of first-round picks that netted Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. That 2009 swap, by the way, came on Sept. 18, which may or may not serve as a guideline for how long this summer’s taffy pull will last.
“We’ve been negotiating with all three of those guys for well over a year,” said Sweeney. “Sometimes it just doesn’t have a timeline, other than, you know, Dec. 1, and if they want to play hockey. Those guys will be playing for the Boston Bruins in some point in time next year — it’s just a matter of when we find the common ground, and we are going to work like hell to get it done.”
The Canadiens will be at the Garden on Dec. 1, by which time the Bruins will have played 26 games, roughly one-third of the 2019-20 schedule. RFAs unsigned by Dec. 1 are ineligible to play in the NHL for the remainder of the season. The Blues’ miracle aside, many teams slow off the mark are rendered postseason DNQs by Game 26.
Sweeney is equally loath to have players not under contract by training camp, noting repeatedly during his four-year tenure that late arrivals have a way of throwing the team off kilter.
Case in point: RFA William Nylander and the Maple Leafs going right to the Dec. 1 deadline last season, and Nylander never really getting his game centered. His point-per-game production fell off by one-third during the regular season and he was a virtual no-show (1-2—3) in seven playoff games vs. the Bruins.
Not all RFAs are created equal. Some individual factors to keep in mind as this plays out:
McAvoy — Because he has only two years of regular-season service, other clubs are not allowed to sign him via an offer sheet. He also is not eligible for salary arbitration. His only option is to come to terms or force a trade.
Carlo — Not arbitration eligible, but can be tendered an offer sheet.
Heinen — Eligible for both arbitration and an offer sheet. He elected arbitration on Friday and awaits word if the Bruins will choose a one- or two-year decision.
Bruins address their depth in net
As the weekend approached, upward of 170 free agent deals had been signed since Monday at noon, with a total value of some $790 million (roughly the anticipated cost of the next NHL expansion franchise).
One of the lower-profile deals in all of that was signed by Max Lagace, who on Monday became Boston’s backup to backup Jaroslav Halak. Until further notice, the 26-year-old Lagace is the No. 3 goaltender in the Boston organization, replacing Zane McIntyre, who signed the same day with Vancouver, netting a one-year, two-way deal that will guarantee him a minimum $400,000.
McIntyre, also 26, spent four years in the Boston system, with a guaranteed base salary of $250,000 each of the past two years. In his limited time with the varsity (eight games), he showed flashes of solid play but was never able to win (0-4-1), undone at times by goals that were flukes or could be attributed to lack of concentration or faulty technique.
Lagace, never drafted as a junior (Quebec League), offers what the Bruins believe is bona fide NHL-caliber puck-stopping, a trait GM Don Sweeney believes will lift the play of Lagace’s partner at AHL Providence and throughout the system. It was clear Sweeney didn’t see that in McIntyre after a four-year investment.
“We basically told Max that he can complement our top two guys, push our top two guys when we run into trouble because he has that NHL experience,” said Sweeney. “But most importantly, our younger guys have to take the net from him. He’s been in situations where he’s been the go-to guy with a couple of different clubs in the American Hockey League, and our younger goaltenders need to understand they will have opportunity, but they need to take the net from a guy who has it — without being blocked out, obviously.”
Lagace, 6-2 and 190 pounds, was among the original class of free agents signed by the Golden Knights in the summer of 2017.
He shuttled between Vegas and AHL Chicago, posting a 6-8-1 mark and with a subpar .868 save percentage with the Knights.
Swedish forward Par Lindholm, who signed last Monday with the Bruins (two years, $850,000 annually) opted not to leave Sweden’s top pro league until shortly before his 27th birthday last year. It’s rare for European players, even those never drafted such as Lindholm, to wait that long before trying to crack the NHL. “I turned it down, because I didn’t think I was ready for it,” he said, noting offers to come to North America prior to last year. “So I had a good year in Sweden and the opportunity came again in Toronto, and I thought I was ready.” Lindholm’s reasons for not coming in prior years? “I don’t really know,” he said. “I had two or three good years where I improved, and I wanted that to keep going. I was on a good team [Skelleftea] there, too, and I didn’t want it to end, I guess.” Lindholm played 61 games for the Leafs (1-11—12) and then was flipped to Winnipeg at the February trade deadline for Nicolas Petan . . . Connor Clifton’s brother, a right winger, signed with San Jose as a free agent out of Quinnipiac in 2017 and spent the last season-plus in the AHL. According to agent Alec Schall, Tim Clifton likely will play in Europe next season. Corey Clifton, 20, is expected to play a second season in the BCHL, according to Schall, and then join Quinnipiac as a freshman in the fall of 2020 . . . Mildly surprising last Monday when Sweeney said he did not make an offer to retain the services of Marcus Johansson, whose strong work was among the key factors in the Bruins reaching the Cup Final. The main factor in not making a bid, of course, is Sweeney’s limited cap space, of which most, if not all, will be eaten up by Boston’s three RFAs. Lindholm, who can play center or wing, will be among those to audition for the opening as Charlie Coyle’s third-line left winger . . . Every New England kid should enjoy Ron Hainsey’s long NHL run. Now 38, the one-time Springfield Pic hitched last Monday with the Senators with a one-year deal for $3.5 million. He never fulfilled the potential the Canadiens saw when they made him the No. 13 pick in the 2000 draft, and it took until 2017 for him be part of a playoff team (Cup win with Pittsburgh), but he has logged 1,068 games and made solid dough, his Ottawa deal lifting his career earnings to some $44 million . . . Ex-Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey, wheeled from the Rangers to the Sabres last Monday for a third-round pick, might ride with longtime pal Jack Eichel in Buffalo. It’s the second time the Sabres have yielded a third-round pick to secure Vesey’s rights. In the summer of 2016, upon leaving Harvard, Vesey saw his rights flipped from Nashville to the Sabres, once he made it clear he had no intention of signing with the Predators. Sweeney, who offered Vesey a deal in Boston as a UFA in 2016, made it clear last Monday that he knew Vesey was available again in trade. He either opted not to surrender the pick, or didn’t want to accommodate Vesey’s salary ($2.275 million) . . . If they can temper his self-defeating on-ice impulses, the Avalanche made a key acquisition in ex-Leaf Nazem Kadri. Frankly, if his on-ice antics hadn’t gotten him pitched out of the postseason each of the past two years, it’s quite possible the Leafs would have bounced the Bruins both years in Round 1. The Leafs flipped him to Denver for Tyson Barrie and ex-Harvard forward Alex Kerfoot, a move that trimmed $2.5 million from the Leafs’ payroll . . . For the record, Sweeney has the lists of teams in hand that Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Torey Krug, and David Backes will accept in trade. Unlike when he took over the GM job in 2015, inheriting a roster stacked with no-trade and no-move clauses, Sweeney now has room to maneuver. It’s highly unlikely he’ll choose to move any of the four — and it’s equally doubtful anyone will offer on Backes — but Sweeney does have the elbow room at least to engage in talks. The only three players he can’t trade are Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara . . . Nine players, including old friend Ryan Spooner, were cut free in the just-concluded first buyout period. Lopped by the Canucks, Spooner will collect $1.34 million over each of the next two seasons. Only 27, he’s likely to recover some, if not all, of his lost $1.34 million from a club willing to pay him the league minimum $700,000 to kickstart his career.