Could this be the year we finally see an NHL team shake up the RFA market with an offer sheet?
There’s been some debate over the weekend, spurred on by a post at The Athletic that argued that the Maple Leafs could take a run at someone like St. Louis defenceman Colton Parayko. In the piece, Tyler Dellow lays out the case for the Leafs to target a capped-out Blues team.
On the one hand, the idea seems crazy. Even putting aside whether the Leafs should be trying to fast-track their rebuild, offer sheets almost never work — there’s only been one successful attempt since 1997. But Dellow lays out a convincing argument that this year’s Leafs are a rare case of a team that could pull it off, because they have lots of short-term cap room, an obvious hole in the roster, and draft picks that are unlikely to fall at the top of the draft.
So today, let's break out some alternate history as we look back at some of the bigger offer sheets over the years and ask: What might have happened if the team hadn't matched?
Michel Goulet, 1991
The offer sheet was still a relatively new weapon in 1991, having been in play for just five years, and at that point one had never actually been matched by the player's original team. The Blues had pulled off what still stands as the most successful offer sheet ever in 1990, when they'd pried Scott Stevens away from the Capitals. A year later, they decided to try again.
Their first target was Goulet, a veteran sniper coming off his first full season in Chicago. Going after Goulet served a dual purpose for the Blues, who could land a decent scorer while hurting their arch-rivals in the process. The Blues and Hawks had battled it out for the Presidents' Trophy in 1990–91, and Goulet's offer sheet continued the rivalry. St. Louis offered the veteran a four-year deal worth nearly $3 million, but Chicago matched, and the Blues had to turn elsewhere.
What if?: Goulet would play three more years and score 61 goals; decent numbers, but not enough to really change the course of history for either team. (Although he did help the Blackhawks make the final in 1992.)
But there may have been a crucial side effect of the Goulet deal. Having missed on one winger, the Blues turned their attention to a bigger offer-sheet prize: New Jersey's Brendan Shanahan. The good news is that they got him. The bad news is that it cost them far more than they imagined, when the Devils demanded Stevens as compensation. An arbitrator agreed, Stevens became a Devil (after a brief holdout) and the rest was history.
If the Blackhawks had let Goulet go to St. Louis, there's at least a decent change that the Blues never target Shanahan. And that means Stevens doesn't end up anchoring the Devils' blue line for the next dozen years.
Kevin Stevens, 1991
The Bruins and Penguins waged one of the better feuds of the early ’90s, spurred on by Cam Neely and Ulf Samuelsson. After the Pens knocked off the Bruins in the 1991 conference final, Boston decided to take the rivalry off the ice during the off-season by targeting one of the Penguins' best young players with an offer sheet.
Bruins' GM Mike Milbury gave the power winger a five-year deal reportedly worth over $1 million per season. The idea of Stevens, a local boy, playing on a line with Neely seemed irresistible. But after several days of suspense, the Penguins matched the offer.
What if?: Stevens scored 109 goals over the next two seasons and was a first-team all-star in 1992. The Penguins beat the Bruins in the conference final yet again that year, including a game in which Stevens scored four goals against his would-be team. Would the series have turned out differently if Stevens had been on the other side? It's unlikely — it was a four-game sweep — but we'll never know for sure.
Teemu Selanne, 1992
Here's a trivia question that would stump most fans: Who did Teemu Selanne sign his first NHL contract with?
The answer: the Calgary Flames.
Yes, despite being drafted by the Jets in 1988 and making his NHL debut in Winnipeg four years later, Selanne actually signed his first deal with Calgary, in the form of an offer sheet. The Flames gave the Finnish rookie a three-year deal worth $2.7 million, nearly double what the cash-strapped Jets were hoping to pay.
It was worth a shot, but Jets GM Mike Smith quickly matched. Any lingering bad feelings were quickly forgotten when Selanne took the league by storm with a 76-goal rookie season.
What if?: One can only imagine when Selanne could have done playing alongside Theo Fleury, Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. At the very least, you'd have to assume the Flames wouldn't have gone a dozen years without winning a playoff round.