Monday, August 30, 2021

What lessons will the rest of the NHL learn from the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet?

The Carolina Hurricanes offer sheet to Jesperi Kotkaniemi has become the talk of the NHL. While that’s not an especially high bar in August, this is a pretty irresistible story for a hockey fan. It’s got the novelty of the rarely seen offer sheet, some genuine intrigue over how it will all play out, and a solid dose of pettiness to add to the mix.

That last bit is the angle that’s getting most of the attention these days, and rightly so given how clearly this move was inspired by the Habs’ 2019 offer sheet to Sebastian Aho. NHL front offices are filled with bitter grumps with long memories, but they’re usually not this over-the-top. From the $20 signing bonus to the word-for-for press release, apparently the Hurricanes don’t do subtle.

But while I can appreciate some junior high-level drama as much as the next guy, I’m wondering about a different angle: Where does the NHL go from here? After all, this a copycat league that’s notorious for GMs reacting to anything that happens by immediately shifting strategy to… well, something different. Sometimes they learn the right lesson. Often, they don’t. So what are NHL GMs going to talk themselves into after watching this whole mess unfold from their cottages?

I’m not sure, but I’ve got a few possibilities. Let’s work through how this might play out.

Lesson 1: Offer sheets are too dangerous, never try them

This one’s simple. The Canadiens’ offer sheet to Aho was the first one the league had seen in six years, and the biggest since Shea Weber in 2012. In between, hockey fans were left wondering why nobody was using a powerful weapon that was sitting right there in the rulebook. We could argue over whether Montreal’s move had any chance of succeeding – it didn’t – but at least they tried, which is more than you can say for anyone else.

And now, they have their reward: A retaliatory offer sheet aimed at one of their key young players. The lesson, it would seem, is to stay away from offer sheets entirely. You’ll just about never get the player, you get your fans’ hopes up for nothing, and you might just be putting a target on your own RFAs a year or two down the line.

Let’s be honest, we’re all pretty sure that this is the lesson that NHL GMs will end up learning from all this. But is it the right one?

Maybe, but there’s one problem with that theory: We’ve been hearing about the risk of retaliatory offer sheets for years. It comes up every summer, as yet another crop of top-tier RFAs would come and go without a single attempt. When fans would wonder why GMs were so hesitant to even try an offer sheet, one of the first reasons offered was always the threat of payback. But it basically never happened; before this weekend, the last time a team tried a retribution-based offer sheet was in 2008, when the Blues responded to the Canucks signing David Backes by going after Steve Bernier.

That was it. The Predators never went after a Flyer after the Weber offer. The Avs didn’t target any Flames after Ryan O’Reilly. The Sabres didn’t go after any Oilers after Thomas Vanek. Until this week, a GM who tried an offer sheet had as much chance of being challenged to a barn fight as they did of facing a return attempt. But they kept bringing it up anyway, hiding behind a mostly imagined threat as a reason to avoid doing their jobs.

Now it’s finally happened. But it sure seems like the fear of this kind of situation was already baked into whatever calculations teams were doing. It was the monster under the bed that they were already afraid of. Now that the monster is real, does that really change anything?

It might, which is why we’re all assuming that we’ll hear this excuse even more often in the coming years. But in the interest of encouraging GMs to keep their options open, let’s see if we can flip this one around…

Lesson 2: Offer sheets can actually work, so use them more

All those offer sheets we mentioned in the last section were matched. So was every offer sheet of the last 24 years, with one exception: the infamous Dustin Penner deal in 2007, which led to the Brian Burke/Kevin Lowe feud. Penner was a decent player in his day, but he wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a star. The last genuine difference-maker to switch teams after an offer sheet was… geez, does Chris Gratton in 1997 count? Shayne Corson in 95? Do we have to go all the way back to the Scott Stevens/Brendan Shanahan days in the early 90s?

You get the point. Offer sheets just don’t work. The incentive for teams to hold onto their own RFAs is just too high. That’s always been the system’s biggest problem. Why bother signing another team’s star to an offer sheet that won’t work? Sure, you can mess with their cap situation a bit, but that’s about the only benefit. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time, because teams always match.

Except along comes the Kotkaniemi deal, and the Habs… might not?

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