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Thursday, July 21, 2011
Poaching players with offer sheets is futile

By Scott Burnside

So, was anyone outside of the frenzied faithful in Philadelphia surprised when Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman announced the Lightning had inked star winger Steven Stamkos to a five-year deal?

No?

Didn't think so.

In spite of weeks of rumors and impassioned wishes from other markets -- most notably Philadelphia, where the Flyers made the curious move of announcing they were not going to extend an offer sheet to the restricted free agent -- Stamkos' return to Tampa was a forgone conclusion.

It is the same with Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty, although clearly he is not as far along in the process.

Would 29 other teams love to have Doughty, one of the most promising defenders of the next generation of NHL stars, on their roster?

Ryan Kesler
Imagine the ramifications for both franchises had the Flyers been just a little more aggressive and been successful in acquiring Ryan Kesler?
Of course.

Will you see any team present an offer sheet in an effort to make it happen?

No.

Why?

Well, the answer is pretty obvious -- because it's futile.

It has been that way throughout the history of the offer sheet, and it remains so even though the salary cap and internal budgets suggest these are fertile times for plundering other teams' players.

"For me, offer sheets as a way of acquiring players has never proven fruitful," former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a national analyst, told ESPN.com this week.

Since the mid-1990s, Button noted, "no star player has come close to moving."

Even when teams didn't have scads of money -- like when Chicago tried to poach Keith Tkachuk from Winnipeg in 1995 -- the home team has simply exercised its right to match an offer sheet.

More recently, the Edmonton Oilers tried to pry Thomas Vanek away from the then-cash-challenged Sabres, but Buffalo GM Darcy Regier swallowed hard and matched the Oilers' seven-year, $50 million offer.

While the Flyers clearly went through the process of figuring out what kind of offer sheet might work for Stamkos and how it might impact their already-reconstructed team, in the end GM Paul Holmgren didn't bother.

The process has proven to be "cost-prohibitive and fruitless because teams are saying we're not letting that guy go," Button said.

Button said there is a way to use the offer sheet as a mechanism to improve, and the Flyers came close to doing that a few years back.

Instead of targeting established players like Stamkos or Vanek -- the Oilers settled for Vanek-lite, er, well, not so light, but a lesser player in Dustin Penner, whom they signed away from the Anaheim Ducks -- Button suggests that targeting the emerging player is the best use of the offer sheet.

"I think teams approach it in the wrong way," Button said.

The Flyers did that in September 2006 in identifying former first-round draft pick Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. They put in a one-year offer sheet for $1.9 million on Kesler, but the Canucks matched.

Button wonders what would have happened if the Flyers had sweetened the pot on their offer so that instead of a second-round draft pick, the Canucks would have received a first-round pick and a third-round pick.

Kesler was still just a prospect at that point, not the Frank J. Selke winner he is now. The Canucks weren't happy at having to shell out the $1.9 million. Would they have balked at paying more for Kesler at that point in his career and figured they were just as far ahead in taking another first-round pick?

Imagine the ramifications for both franchises if the Flyers had been just a little more aggressive and been successful in acquiring a player who is now one of the top forwards in the game?

While there's been much discussion this offseason about the potential for offer sheets for stars like Stamkos, Doughty or Zach Parise and Shea Weber -- before the Devils and Predators opted for salary arbitration as a way of circumventing this possibility -- Button wonders about other players who may have a lower profile but could prove to be difference-makers.

What about T.J. Oshie, who signed a one-year, $2.35 million deal with the Blues recently?

The Blues have ownership issues. If a team had gone beyond $3.13 million on an offer sheet with significantly longer terms, would the Blues have matched, or taken a first-round pick and third-round pick as compensation?

Button was likewise curious about Karl Alzner, who signed a cap-friendly two-year deal with a $1.285 million cap hit.

Alzner logs a ton of ice time, plays against opposing teams' top players, and has Rod Langway potential. If you're an opposing GM, would you give up a series of picks (including a first-round pick) to have a Langway-type player for the next five or six years?

Perhaps the Caps would have matched, but maybe not.

"To me, that guy was Karl Alzner," Button said.

There are others.

What about Los Angeles forward Trevor Lewis, who signed a two-year deal with a $725,000 cap hit?

He's 24 years old, so why not take a chance on him with an offer sheet that pays him perhaps twice as much, a figure that might have been too much for the Kings to contemplate matching but would have cost the signing team just a second-round pick?

"I call it the fast-forward effect," Button said. "It's not like you're putting it [the money and picks] on a 37-year-old guy."

If a team was bold enough to identify an emerging young player every year, "you'd jump the queue by five years," Button predicted.

Still, under the current cap system that forces teams to spend at least $48.3 million this season, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford doesn't expect there to be a proliferation of offer sheets.

The same issues still exist, Rutherford told ESPN.com, and that is the likelihood that teams will almost always match an offer sheet.

If there wasn't a salary-cap floor or if the floor didn't force teams to spend as much as is the case now, perhaps there would be more offer sheets, Rutherford said.

But given the current situation, with players hitting unrestricted free agency in their mid-20s and the need to keep young assets in the fold, Rutherford said he doesn't expect to see much change when it comes to offer sheets.