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Thursday, August 2, 2007
Updated: August 13, 3:47 PM ET
Lowe's offer sheet tactic could soon become the norm

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

In the old days of the nuclear arms race, there was something called "mutually assured destruction," or MAD.

Basically, it was the knowledge that military superpowers the Soviet Union and the United States had enough "boom" in their respective missile silos to blow the other side to Kingdom Come. Regardless of who fired first, before the first missile was on the ground, the skies would be so full of them from both countries that it would assure total annihilation of both sides.

The NHL has had its own "mutually assured destruction" scenario for years, too, but instead of intercontinental ballistic missiles, NHL general managers have the offer sheet.

Dustin Penner
Dustin Penner, 25, has played just one full NHL season.

Each GM had access to the same nasty little weapon, a sheet of paper that would allow him to steal away another team's restricted free agents for a handful of draft picks, depending on how much money the offer sheet represented.

For years, GMs kept those papers under lock, in part because the few offer sheets that were presented were invariably matched, including offers presented to established stars like Joe Sakic, Keith Tkachuk and Sergei Fedorov.

There was also the notion that the offer sheet was somehow dirty pool -- by using the tool a GM could expect to suffer a similar fate somewhere down the road. Plus, GMs who might have pulled the stunt wouldn't have been invited to any of the good GM parties.

Well, Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe shouldn't sit by his phone waiting for invitations to the next GMs court whist tournament. Not after he unleashed offer sheets to Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Anaheim's Dustin Penner this offseason.

The Sabres immediately matched the Oilers' offer, while the Ducks on Thursday declined to match and took the Oilers' first-, second- and third-round picks in next summer's draft. Both teams reacted with surprising fury.

Normally an even-keeled sort, GM Darcy Regier -- along with Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn -- were apoplectic when the Oilers delivered the seven-year, $50 million offer sheet and threatened to rain down vengeance on Lowe's head.

Ducks GM Brian Burke was likewise in rare form when the Oilers came calling for Penner's services, suggesting Lowe, a close friend, was desperate to keep his job. It prompted Edmonton's GM to offer Penner $21.5 million over five years, what is essentially a 1,000-percent increase in Penner's salary.

Maybe Lowe was desperate -- his team went from Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals to failing to make the playoffs last spring and is struggling to draw players to the once-hallowed hockey ground of Northern Alberta.

But if these are the acts of a desperate man, Lowe won't be alone in the desperation club in coming years.

Because the current collective bargaining agreement forces teams to spend to a cap floor (this season it's $34.3 million), many clubs will be in a position that forces them to spend money -- whether they want to or not. And using an offer sheet could become a more popular way of spending that money to add assets, especially young assets.

"If any team says they haven't thought about it or haven't spent time on it, then they're either lying or they're not doing their job very well," former Calgary GM Craig Button said in an interview this week.

The offer sheet may upset the comfy little GMs club where there are plenty of wink-wink deals made between teams (the Thrashers' ability to extract a first-round pick from the Blues for the rights to Tkachuk when it seemed fairly obvious the free agent wasn't going to sign anywhere but in St. Louis comes to mind), but it reflects the changing paradigm of the NHL.

The future of the NHL is in futures. It's why the Flyers gave Scott Hartnell a six-year deal after acquiring his rights from Nashville. They did it not because of what he's done but because of what he might do. If Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is right and the salary cap doesn't take a precipitous dive, Hartnell's $25.2 million price tag will be easily justified over the life of the deal.

In many ways, it's less of a risk than paying Kimmo Timonen $37.8 million over six years. Timonen, one of the NHL's top 10 defensemen, is 32 years old. Hartnell is just 25. So is Penner worth $4.3 million a year at age 25, with only one full NHL season under his belt?

To 29 other GMs, including Burke, probably not. But to Lowe he is. And if it puts the salary scale out of whack for other young players like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, two other Ducks stars who will come to the end of their entry-level deals next summer, too bad. It's not up to Lowe to make sure the salary cap is easier to manage for his confreres. And if it comes back to bite him when he has to renegotiate his own players' contracts and the Penner deal becomes a comparable, so be it.

For teams that have to spend up to the cap floor, it's often going to be more attractive to overpay for a younger player via an offer sheet than to overpay for an older unrestricted free agent, provided a team has the necessary draft picks to make the offer sheet. How many times this summer did an unrestricted free agent sign a long-term deal only to have critics throw up their hands and say, "Are they crazy, paying that kind of money for so-and-so?"

"There's too much short-term thinking in the league," Button said.

Penner had 29 goals last season. If he posts 30 or more for the next couple campaigns, you can be sure GMs will be using him as a comparable when it comes time to sign their own players. If the salary cap continues to rise or even if it flatlines, Penner will be seen as a bargain, Button predicted.

One thing seems certain: the use of the offer sheet as a way of adding young assets is going to become more popular, forcing GMs to lock up their assets at the first possible opportunity.

Depending on the money offered, a GM could pick up a player just finishing his entry-level contract and only have to give up a second-round draft pick. In some ways, it would be like a secondary draft; a method for collecting young assets without risking a lot financially or in terms of future draft picks, especially if the host team is up against the cap or isn't sold on the young player's potential.

Regardless of the hard feelings Lowe's strategy has created, one thing seems to have been lost in the translation -- Lowe gave up a significant amount in the future himself.

Even without Penner in the lineup, the Ducks should be a lock to make the playoffs. With Penner in the Oilers' lineup, they'll still be life and death to make the playoffs.

Despite his vitriol, Burke could have his team in the playoffs and get a top-10 draft pick next summer. And perhaps he'll spend the money he saved to lock up Perry and Getzlaf, so Lowe won't be at his door again next summer.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.