Sunday, July 11, 2010

RFA Poaching: Swimming in Shark-Infested Waters

It’s now been nearly two weeks since the NHL’s free agency period has opened, and with all the fiscal irresponsibility transactions that have taken place, numerous hockey websites, blogs, and analysts are mulling over the best, worst, and most confusing moves made this off-season. But Friday’s top signing seems to trump all the others thus far when it comes to sheer shock-value: the San Jose Sharks’ offer sheet of $14 million over 4 years to Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Since he is a restricted free agent, the Blackhawks have seven days to match San Jose’s offer sheet to retain Hjalmarsson’s services, or lose the 23-year blueliner to the Sharks and receive compensation in the form of the Sharks' 1st and 3rd round draft picks next year.  (For a frame of reference on just how much a team gets compensated for an unmatched RFA tender, click here).

Why the shock, you ask? For starters, Hjalmarsson may well be the eighth player from the ‘Hawks Stanley Cup winning squad from last month to leave the Windy City via trade or free agency. Short of the Florida Marlins circa 1997, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a championship team in ANY sport dismantled so quickly. OK, I’m being a bit rash, but with the number of secondary scorers and role players Chicago has parted ways with so far this summer (Byfuglien, Eager, Sopel, Fraser, Ladd, Versteeg, and Burish, for those counting at home), one can’t help but be curious to see how the Hawks fare in defending the Stanley Cup victory in 2010-11, considering the sizeable makeover. And depending on how well Antti Niemi fares in salary arbitration, more moves could well be on the way (are your bags packed yet, Patrick Sharp?).

But I suppose I’m surprised more because in this salary cap era of financial management – where several teams are pressed against the cap ceiling due to poor managerial foresight, overspending for mid-level players, constant speculation the cap may decrease, etc. – that more NHL front offices HAVEN’T taken advantage of teams in the same monetary quandary Chicago finds itself in by tendering an offer sheet to the numerous RFA’s on the market.

Since the NHLPA ratified the current CBA (and thus ending the darkest days in NHL history), a grand total of FIVE offer sheets have been tendered to RFA’s throughout the league in that time (Ryan Kesler by Philadelphia in 2007, Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner by Edmonton in 2007, David Backes by Vancouver in 2008, Steve Bernier by St. Louis in 2008) before Hjalmarsson’s signing Friday. All but one contract – Penner’s deal with the Oilers – was matched by the parent club of the prospective RFA. Oilers’ GM Kevin Lowe’s RFA poaching attempts of Penner and Vanek three summers ago drew a stern league-wide rebuke, and birthed a classic feud between himself and both Sabres GM Darcy Regier and then-Ducks GM Brian Burke.

Even before the lockout, it’s not as if teams were in the habit of offering deals to other RFA’s across the league. The last offer sheet tendered to an RFA of an opposing team? Try going back to 1999 and the legendary Brett Hauer, who last played in North America in 2002.

While most of the hockey headlines continue to fixate on the potential whereabouts for Ilya Kovalchuk for 2010-11 (or something about nuptials exchanged this past weekend), little text seems to be devoted to the numerous RFA’s still on the open market (though Puck Daddy had a nice piece earlier last week on this very topic).

Given the (mostly) lackluster crop of UFA’s this summer, one could easily argue that the RFA crop is much stronger (still available as of this writing: Bobby Ryan, James Neal, Marc Staal, Ian White, Carey Price, Devin Setoguchi, Blake Wheeler, amongst others). It’s safe to say NHL Free Agency 2010 has mostly disappointed until Friday. Perhaps the work by Dougie Wilson in San Jose could trigger a shift in philosophy for teams looking to fill the holes in their rosters for next season – and spark some animosity and hostility between other teams (like Chicago) in economic dire straits….nothing like a little hatred towards a fellow conference rival.

Maybe it’s the worst-case-scenario mentality that scares off NHL GM’s from courting RFA’s, knowing the cost of compensation could be quite steep (just think back to the Scott Stevens/Brendan Shanahan fiasco in the early 90's). Perhaps most GM’s seem to think they can do better for themselves by trading for an RFA’s rights rather than actually offering a contract (Phil Kessel last summer and Jaroslav Halak this summer come to mind). Perhaps it’s the harsh scorn and ridicule Lowe received following his pursuit of Vanek and Penner in the summer of 2007 that scares off any notion of scoring an RFA. Or it could be that these GM’s simply don’t want to take that chance, knowing either the parent team will match the offer, or that GM’s are clutching too tightly to those precious draft picks as if they were family heirlooms.

Whatever the reasons may be, I’m one hockey fan that’s hoping Doug Wilson’s actions might spice up the free agency world this summer.

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