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On NHL RFA Offer Sheets: Scarcity not just about GM 'old boys network'

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It's in the name: RFA is "restricted." But that doesn't mean it's collusion that keeps players from changing teams.

The fix is not in. This man got paid.
The fix is not in. This man got paid.
Harry How

P.K. Subban and Ryan Johansen are great young players who had protracted restricted free agent negotiations with their teams this summer. Either are arguably franchise players who are only getting better. So why won't a rival offer sheet them?

That's a question that comes up a lot during the slow days of summer. The answer is surely that at the end of the day, all GMs are just colluding old buddies, right?

Hardly.

The NHL is definitely an old boys network in many ways (despite some refreshing recent hires from outside those invited to Bettman Grove), but cynical fans and pundits can sometimes be too quick to pin all silliness on the old guard.

During the recently concluded Subban saga, this was Elliotte Friedman -- who talks to his share of GMs and well-placed team executives -- on why none was forthcoming:

Many GMs will tell you offer-sheeting Montreal is stupid because the team is a financial powerhouse, although there are varying opinions on whether or not it is worth it to screw up the Canadiens' cap situation.

After observing more than a decade of RFA, and nearly a decade under a salary cap, I suspect Friedman is much closer to the mark on this topic.

But what about using offer sheets to attack a non "financial powerhouse," such as Columbus?

Discussing the Johansen standoff with the Blue Jackets, Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski noted -- and practically dismissed -- that aspect:

In a different, less old-boys-network league, perhaps there would be an offer sheet placed on Johansen that would force the Blue Jackets’ hands. They’d match, of course, but it would still monkey with their well-curated salary structure a year before players like Sergei Bobrovsky and Cam Atkinson are up for new deals.

It's true, Columbus could be more vulnerable than Montreal -- the Blue Jackets are a lower revenue team, s forcing them to match could really do a Weber-in-Nashville number on their budget. But the "old boys network" didn't stop the Philadelphia Flyers (who, of course, are a more aggressive, shatter-the-norm franchise) from attacking low-revenue Nashville in offering Shea Weber a mammoth offer sheet a few summers ago.

And we saw where that move got the Flyers.

If even a low-revenue team will turn over all its piggy banks to match an offer -- and they will, because franchise players are so hard to acquire -- then it's practically not worth the bother.

I should note, too, that the current Columbus braintrust of John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen, both longtime members of the network, have been attacked before. Vancouver tried it when they were with the Blues, signing David Backes to an offer sheet.

Now granted, you could argue that this was a departure and in fact an outside-the-boys-network move since former player agent Mike Gillis -- resented by some as an outsider -- was the GM in Vancouver.

But I think the bigger lesson from that one is that all it did was ruffle feathers in St. Louis...and invite a retaliatory strike by the Blues with an offer sheet to Vancouver's Steve Bernier.

The lack of RFA offer sheets isn't so much because teams don't want to piss each other off; they do that in other avenues all the time. Rather, pissing each other off in this way accomplishes little, and oh, in the process raises the salary expectations of their own current and future players.

Meanwhile, "restricted" free agency generally does its job: It's restricted, so the players have little leverage. But it creates enough discomfort and fear (both from compensation vs. salary in an offer sheet and from the fact that this is the only legal way under the CBA for a player to "hold out"), that the key RFAs still end up cashing in big. It's just usually with the teams who already own their rights.