We finally got one. After years of threats, teases, rumors and innuendo, the NHL saw an actual offer sheet handed to an actual young star player when the Montreal Canadiens got Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho to sign one on July 1.
What a thrilling few moments those were, when the hockey world scrambled to comprehend the mechanics of that deal ... until it became quickly apparent that the deal wasn't large enough, and maybe never would have been, to deter the Hurricanes from matching.
"You're never surprised when there's enough chatter that it's going to happen," one NHL general manager recently told ESPN. "But no one wants to be in a position of weakness."
What the Aho contract did, however, was set a benchmark for the restricted free-agent market. So did Jacob Trouba's deal with the New York Rangers, and Timo Meier's deal with the San Jose Sharks. These are deals that RFAs and their agents will point to and proclaim as comparable to what they're seeking.
But NHL teams don't always see them the same way.
"It's hard to call it a 'market.' Some teams are going to do something totally different than what you'd do, so how can you be held accountable for that?" an Eastern Conference general manager wondered aloud. "How does one bad contract become the market? That's what we're all up against sometimes."
As we hit midsummer, here's a look at the big names still seeking contracts (and potentially more offer sheets), those on the arbitration docket, and the restricted free agents who have signed. Thanks to Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and Cap Friendly for the resources.
The unsigned, big-ticket RFAs
Timo Meier of the Sharks has 54 goals and 54 assists in 193 games. Boeser has 59 goals and 57 assists in 140 games. Meier was given a contract for four years, worth $6 million annually from the Sharks, with a salary that jumps to $10 million in the final season, which means a blockbuster qualifying offer after it expires. There's talk Boeser wants a four-year term, but at around $7 million AAV. Would he go for that grand finale of a final season, too?
Is six years and around $6.8 million in AAV, which is the Evolving Wild projection, in the cards for Connor? There has been offer-sheet scuttlebutt regarding Connor, who was second only to Mark Scheifele on the Jets in goals above average. But GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has made it clear the Jets intend to match any offer he might consider signing.
A steady presence on the Boston blue line, and arguably its second-best defenseman behind Charlie McAvoy at this point. If the Bruins can get him in at around six years and $4.5 million annually, that would be a coup.
A bridge contract would appear to be the right move for both parties. Konecny had had two solid seasons of 24 goals for the Flyers, establishing himself in a top-six role. He's the third-best forward on the team in terms of goals above average, making his mark on the power play as well. A couple more seasons like this, and he could really earn some term and dough.
Patrik Laine, LW/RW, Winnipeg Jets
Previous AAV: $3.575M
Only five players have scored more goals than Laine in the past three seasons. Of the five, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning has the smallest AAV at ... $9.5 million. So that's what the Jets are looking at here, as Laine seeks his next contract, even as Evolving Wild sees Laine's deal at around $7 million over seven seasons. Will the term resemble that of draftmate Auston Matthews, whose five years walk him up to unrestricted free agency? Or will he sign a max deal with the Jets? (And why hasn't there been more smoke about a Laine offer sheet? Isn't this the kind of player you poach?)
There was nothing more awkward than watching the 23-year-old Leafs star make the media rounds recently, trying to pump up interest in his Marner All-Star Invitational charity even while ducking questions about his contentious contract talks with Toronto. "I'm just trying to stay away from the talk," he said, adding that his agent has "been dealing with everything and has done a great job."
What has his agent been dealing with? Shopping for an offer sheet that has yet to materialize, for one. An offer sheet that GM Kyle Dubas has said the Maple Leafs might not necessarily match if the compensation is too enticing; a warning shot to Marner, whose ultimate desire is to remain in Toronto.
On an eight-year term, Evolving Wild projects a cap hit of $9.613 million for Marner. But Auston Matthews makes $11.634 million against the cap. John Tavares make $11 million against the cap. These are the comparables that Marner is reportedly eyeing on a contract that would make him the highest-paid winger (via the cap) in NHL history. The Leafs currently have $3.7 million in cap space.
What term could the contract end up being? Matthews took five years. The Leafs are reportedly seeking to bridge Marner at three years. Marner said he'd like to attend Leafs training camp, but would "probably not" without a contract. Oh, this is going to be fun to watch.
Is Marner the thread that'll unravel the rest of the market? "I don't know if they're waiting for one guy, but Marner is a significant piece. I'm not sure if he's the one holding it up because he seems to be the one out looking for an offer sheet," one NHL GM said.
There's probably a contract McAvoy is looking for that he won't yet find with the Bruins. Yes, he's one of the better all-around young defensemen in the NHL. But those mega-deals usually go to players who score a little more than McAvoy does, especially on the power play, and are on the ice a little more than McAvoy has been in his two-year NHL career. D.J. Bean of NBC Sports Boston cautioned against a bridge deal, however, citing what happened with Montreal and P.K. Subban. Since McAvoy doesn't have the games played to get an offer sheet, the Bruins have a lot of leverage. How long do they want to go? Could it be eight years and $7.5 million annually, like Aaron Ekblad signed with Florida?
Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Previous AAV: $919,167
One of the summer's biggest revelations is that despite the precarious cap situation with the Lightning, where a targeted offer sheet would have either pried Point loose or caused major roster restructuring for them to keep him, the 23-year-old center apparently fancies Tampa so much that he had no desire to sign one. Maybe, because of that, other executives expect he'll sign sooner than later.
"Point seems like he's going to be the first to go. Once he falls, maybe the other ones start falling," one general manager said. Point didn't sign an offer sheet with Montreal. The intrigue here is how the RFA that did sign one -- Sebastian Aho -- will affect the price of Point for the Lightning, with the caveat that the tax situation in Tampa is far different than that in Montreal.
Ivan Provorov, D, Philadelphia Flyers
Previous AAV: $1,744,167
The 22-year-old defenseman had an underwhelming third NHL season, but that probably won't deter GM Chuck Fletcher from tendering a contract that gobbles up some UFA time. Fletcher said the Flyers and Provorov are waiting for other RFA defensemen to sign before they figure out their deal. With Jacob Trouba off the board, one assumes they mean Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy.
The phenomenal Finn is poised to become the Avs' highest paid player -- the current leader is Nathan MacKinnon's bargain-of-the-decade $6.3 million AAV -- on this next contract. Colorado has oodles of cap space with which to work, so GM Joe Sakic is confident it'll get done. "Sit back and relax and wait for him to get back to me. Nothing urgent. Training camp's not until Sept. 12 or 13," Sakic told the Denver Post. "I think the more guys that get signed and you see the comparable numbers, the easier it's going to get."
The Calgary Sun predicts that Tkachuk, the pugnacious forward who hit 34 goals and 77 points last season, will become the highest-paid player on the Flames. Evolving Wild sees a six-year deal with an AAV that crests over $7.8 million annually. Calgary has just over $9 million in open cap space for Tkachuk, Dave Rittich and Sam Bennett.
We imagine it would be a welcome change for Blue Jackets fans to see a free agent from last year's roster actually sign on to return. Werenski had an average year last season, taking a step back at even strength. But as a top-pairing defenseman, the Jackets are going to sign him up long term. The question is whether they help set that market. One thing is clear: With the threat of a potential offer sheet, and with Columbus needing a win, Werenski has some leverage.
Players who are arbitration-eligible
Of the 40 players who elected for salary arbitration, a handful have a hearing on the docket. Here are some of the most prominent ones:
Danton Heinen's $2.8 million AAV didn't help the Flames in trying to keep Bennett's cap hit down in this next contract, sparking speculation they could move the 23-year-old forward who has yet to match the heights of his rookie season in 2015-16.
Update: The Flames and Bennett avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $5.1 million deal.
There always has been a zealotry among Rangers fans about Buchnevich, a 24-year-old forward whose prowess on the power play helps buoy some less-than-ideal results at 5-on-5. The Rangers are in a cap crunch, but the expectation is that Buchnevich won't be a casualty from it.
While Butcher didn't match his rookie season in his sophomore campaign, his underlying numbers (third on the team in goals above average) were strong, especially on the power play. What that's worth to the Devils is a mystery, considering the incentive-laden first contract he signed that pumped up his average annual value. Neal Pionk signed at $3 million AAV with Winnipeg. That might be the floor for Butcher.
This would seem like a spot for a long-term deal between the Cup champions and their 26-year-old defenseman, with Jay Bouwmeester probably coming off the books next summer. Evolving Wild projects a six-year term at $4.6 million AAV.
David Rittich, G, Calgary Flames
Previous AAV: $800,000 | Hearing on July 29
This has "two-year bridge contract" written all over it. Of the 25 goalies who played more than his 45 games last season, only five made less than $3.5 million against the cap. One assumes that's the floor for Big Save Dave.
Memo to NHL teams: This is the kind of player that you should be considering for an offer sheet. The 25-year-old is coming off his best NHL season (29 points), was outstanding on the penalty kill and above average at 5-on-5. He wanted about $2.65 million.
Players with new deals
Many RFAs have already signed new deals this summer, and here are the most notable among them:
The Canes' hands were forced by the offer sheet that Aho signed with the Montreal Canadiens. The cap hit is right around what you'd expect for a contract that doesn't eat up any unrestricted free agency years, and therein lies to problem with it: The deal walks him right up to UFA status. It also pays him over $22.5 million in the first two years, with over $21 million of that in signing bonuses. Not ideal, but also not a contract that was going to dissuade the Canes from matching.
Joel Armia, C, Montreal Canadiens
The deal: Two years, $2.6M AAV
He's a good two-way forward (1.96 expected goals against per 60 even-strength minutes) and this deal could look good if he leaves the Finnish Line (with Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi) and plays up with Max Domi next season as an Andrew Shaw replacement. Although that would mean breaking up a very good line.
One of the most fascinating contract negotiations of the summer: How does one find comparables for a rookie who played himself into the Calder Trophy finalists in 32 games and then backstopped his team to the Stanley Cup? This deal would seem to greatly benefit Binnington, as it gets him an AAV he probably doesn't get in arbitration and walks him up to unrestricted free agency where, if he's not just a trivia question two years after the Cup win, he will break the bank. Meanwhile, the Blues get Binnington at a reasonable annual cap hit, and don't go long term in case he's not what he appeared to be last season. It's still hard to believe they're committing $8.85 million to their goaltending next season between Binnington and Jake Allen, but here we are.
Compher, 24, checks a lot of boxes for the Avalanche. He's a right-handed shooting forward. He can put the puck in the net at a rate few players in their bottom six can. He can kill penalties. And his versatility at forward will allow him to fit on the wing or, most likely, at center. This is one of those signings where, around four years from now, we'll be asking "Joe Sakic got that guy for that contract?"
Smart signing for both sides. The Bruins know what they have in Heinen: a 24-year-old defensive whiz with solid offense (1.64 points per 60 minutes at even strength) with the potential to be even better. Heinen knew his stats last season were off his rookie campaign rates across the board, so it's best to sign and avoid that arbitration hearing.
A bridge deal that connects him with UFA status at the end of it. There are things to love about Iafallo (his forechecking and puck possession) and some things that give you pause about him (a lack of power-play production), but that money for a winger that Anze Kopitar loves having on his line is good value.
Artturi Lehkonen, LW/RW, Montreal Canadiens
The deal: Two years, $2.4M AAV
The surprise here is that the Canadiens didn't want to do something longer term with the productive 24-year-old, who had 31 points last season and was fourth among Habs forwards in even-strength goals above average (9.7). But he's still an RFA at the end of this bridge deal.
The Sharks needed to get the 22-year-old in at a cap-friendly deal in the near term, due to their current financial obligations on the veteran-laden roster. His production, and his consistent improvement, make that cap number a stellar one for the team. To get it, they had to raise his salary to $10 million in the final season, meaning that a qualifying offer for him in his last year of RFA status would be $10 million. Essentially, this is a five-year deal worth $34 million ... although the cap implications in that fifth year will be interesting.
A gritty fourth-liner who takes too many penalties (1.22 minor penalties per 60 even-strength minutes, the 10th-highest rate in the NHL) and shot a rather unsustainable 14.9% to get to 13 goals last season. This contract was a shade higher than you'd expect the Bolts to go here, considering their cap situation, but he has been a good defensive fourth-liner and a better penalty killer for them.
Pionk was the player who moved along with a first-rounder to Winnipeg for Jacob Trouba. He's demonstrably a sub-replacement level player at even strength, but an exceptional player on the power play (7.14 points per 60 minutes, by far the best for any player on the Rangers last season). At the very least, he can help make up that difference with Trouba gone, if not much else for a suddenly suspect Winnipeg back line. But let's be real: Points and ice time are the bread and butter for defensemen in arbitration, so he would've probably gotten this anyway.
GM David Poile loves his long-term contracts, doesn't he? Eight years for Ryan Johansen and Ryan Ellis, seven for Matt Duchene, six for Kyle Turris, Mattias Ekholm and Calle Jarnkrok. That last contract is most applicable to this one for Sissons, as Poile locks up a depth forward with a miniscule cap figure in perpetuity. He's 25 and developing into a really solid two-way pivot who was second on the team in goals above average (9) among forwards.
Oskar Sundqvist, C/RW, St. Louis Blues
The deal: Four years, $2.75M AAV
He waited four seasons to get a crack as a regular and took full advantage of it in a revelatory season with the Blues. There are some concerns about his breakout -- that 12.4 shooting percentage might not be the norm, and that faceoff percentage (42.0) is less than optimal -- but a $2.75 million cap hit for a fourth-line stalwart with upside on a Cup team is solid.
I hate the "he would have gotten this as an unrestricted free agent anyway" argument but ... he would have gotten this as an unrestricted free agent anyway next summer. He's also younger than every other defenseman at this cap number. I'm not the biggest Trouba cheerleader -- I think he's a touch overrated and want to see his chops as a power-play QB before really buying in -- but his underlying numbers, age and that 50-point campaign last season point to this being around the value he'd end up with, especially with four years of a no-movement clause and $22 million in signing bonus money up front in the first three years.