How offer sheets work in the NHL and why they are so rare

It’s that time of year. NHL teams have largely finished big game hunting in free agency, and are now finishing off their rosters by signing their restricted free agents (RFAs) to lesser deals. Of course, the list of RFAs always includes some interesting young players in need of new contracts, and like clockwork, the discussion of offer sheets is making its rounds.

Offer sheets are complex. It’s not as simple as it’s made out to be in NHL21, and signing offer sheets involves a lot of moving parts. There are very good reasons why offer sheets are such a rarity in today’s NHL, and we’ll get into all of the details.

How do offer sheets work?

An offer sheet is a binding NHL contract that is offered to an eligible RFA whose rights are owned by a different NHL club. The rules of the offer sheet are the restrictions in the RFA designation. Any player who is a Group 1 RFA, 10.2.c RFA, or a UFA cannot be tendered an offer sheet.

One key example of this is the Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson is eligible to sign an offer sheet as he is an RFA, whereas Quinn Hughes is not eligible to sign an offer sheet as he is a 10.2c RFA.

If a player chooses to sign an offer sheet with another NHL team, their original team—the one that holds their rights—has a choice. They can either match the offer sheet which means they inherit the signed contract as is, or they can choose not to match. If they do not match, the player is now a member of the other team with their contract being the offer sheet. In return, the original team gets compensation in the form of draft picks from the signing team, depending on what the average annual value (AAV) of the offer sheet was.

Offer sheet compensation tiers

We broke down the NHL offer sheet compensation tiers for this season, but it’s important to note that these tiers can and do change every year. The compensation ranges from nothing, all the way up to four first-round selections. An important note here is that the picks that the signing team has to give the original team must be their own draft choices. If they do not have their own picks, they cannot submit the offer sheet at all.

This season, the compensation tiers are as follows:

Contract AAVCompensation
$1 – $1,356,540No Compensation
$1,356,540 – $2,055,3641 Third-Round Pick
$2,055,364 – $4,110,7321 Second-Round Pick
$4,110,732 – $6,166,0961 First-Round Pick
1 Third-Round Pick
$6,166,096 – $8,221,4631 First-Round Pick
1 Second-Round Pick
1 Third-Round Pick
$8,221,463 – $10,276,8292 First-Round Picks
1 Second-Round Pick
1 Third-Round Pick
$10,279,829 – ∞4 First-Round Picks

Why are offer sheets so rare?

Signing an offer sheet is a very rare occurrence. It is unusual for RFAs to sign offer sheets with other teams and the original team almost always matches the offer sheet. This is the first reason why offer sheets are so rare; even if you do sign a player to an offer sheet, it’s extremely unlikely that the original team will not match it.

It’s a big deal to sign an offer sheet. It is well within a player’s right to sign one, but it signing an offer sheet can be interpreted as dealing in bad faith. For a player that has been drafted and developed by an NHL team to go behind the team’s back and sign a contract with another team all while negotiating a contract with their original team… it’s risky to say the least.

It can cause a lot of bad blood and animosity to develop between the player and the team, and can lead to burned bridges that don’t help the player going forward. In most cases, it is also unlikely that a team will not offer a similar contract anyway, so why bother ruffling feathers if you don’t have to?

On top of all of this, the compensation tiers make it very expensive to sign high-value players to big offer sheets. Giving up three or four high draft choices just to sign one player is a big risk for NHL teams to make, and GMs are notoriously risk averse. It’s a tough line to straddle. If you offer a contract with an AAV too low, it’s easier for the original team to match it. If it’s too high, the compensation you have to pay is higher as well.

Recent offer sheets in the NHL

In the past 10 years, there have been only two offer sheets signed. In 2019, the Montreal Canadiens signed Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet that was matched, and in 2013 the Calgary Flames signed Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet that was also matched.

The Canadiens structured the contract with high signing bonuses in an attempt to make it financially strenuous on the Hurricanes for the next five years if they matched the offer sheet. This didn’t work, as the offer sheet was “laughed at” by Hurricanes management and readily matched.

The O’Reilly offer sheet was matched by the Avalanche, but if it wasn’t, it would have been an utter disaster for the Flames. O’Reilly would have needed to pass through waivers after the offer sheet wasn’t matched, and would have surely been claimed by another team. The Flames would have lost two first-round picks and O’Reilly in the span of one week. It was a downright idiotic move by then GM Jay Feaster and was a fireable offense (not that he was fired, he just should have been).

Offer sheets in the past

A total of 36 offer sheets have been signed in the NHL, the first in 1986 and the most recent in 2019 as discussed above. 13 offer sheets have been accepted, 21 matched, one dropped, and one invalidated. Out of the past 11 offer sheets, only one was not matched. This was in 2007 when the Edmonton Oilers signed Dustin Penner who was originally a member of the Anaheim Ducks. It was also the first time in over a decade that a player changed teams via an offer sheet.

Going back, several NHL stars have been signed to offer sheets in the past. The list includes Scott Stevens (1990 and 1994), Teemu Selanne (1992), Petr Nedved (1994), Keith Tkachuk (1995), Joe Sakic (1997), Sergei Fedorov (1998), Ryan Kesler (2006), Thomas Vanek (2007), and Shea Weber (2012).

1992 was the biggest offseason for offer sheets with seven signed.

Potential offer sheet candidates this offseason

This season has several intriguing offer sheet candidates.

Forwards: Elias Pettersson (Vancouver Canucks), Andrei Svechnikov (Carolina Hurricanes), Kevin Fiala (Minnesota Wild), Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton Oilers), Sam Reinhart (Florida Panthers), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Montreal Canadiens)

Defensemen: Neal Pionk (Winnipeg Jets), Travis Sanheim (Philadelphia Flyers)

Goalies: Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders), Juuse Saros (Nashville Predators)

The likely conclusion

It’s been said many times, but it’s unlikely we’ll see any offer sheets this offseason. They’re just so rare and almost always get matched (at least in recent history) that it’s just not worth the hassle. It would be fun though, especially certain ones like the Seattle Kraken signing Pettersson. It probably won’t happen, but until Pettersson & Co. are officially signed, the offer sheet possibilities remain in play.

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