NHL News

The Wysh List: Offer sheets and character assassinations

This is the velocity of an offer sheet.

Within a span of 24 hours, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin went from lauded maverick to short-sighted dupe. Sebastian Aho, the 21-year-old Carolina Hurricanes center he signed to a five-year, $42.27 million contract offer sheet, went from traitorous opportunist to naïve soul manipulated by his nefarious agent. The Carolina Hurricanes went from a poaching ground for an Original Six legacy franchise to laughing off this hostile takeover like it was a sneering critique of their victory celebrations from Don Cherry.

“It was so ridiculous in terms of probability of succeeding. If it was a test, it was quite an easy one,” said Canes owner Tom Dundon.

Ouch. And you wonder why offer sheets in the NHL happen with the frequency of a unicorn staring at Halley’s Comet while eating a McRib.

I have an unpopular opinion — shocking, I know — about the Canadiens’ failed offer sheet on Aho: it was very much a worthy effort rather than the “waste of time” that Dundon labelled it.

They went fishing, got a bite, but couldn’t reel the Aho tuna into the boat. Should they have added some bait to the hook, a.k.a. gone up a level on salary and draft pick compensation to the Hurricanes? Sure, that’s a fair argument. But that wasn’t really their gambit. They were trying to get Aho in at a certain price, with a certain compensation, and were hoping that a combination of factors — the $21 million of bonus money in the first 12 months and the term that marches him to unrestricted free agency and the line they were selling about Aho “wanting to play for Montreal” — would somehow jar him loose. It didn’t, but the only real damage here for the Canadiens is not having those draft pick assets available for a week. Otherwise, they took a shot, they missed, and life goes on.

As hockey fans, we’ve been begging for someone to tender an offer sheet to a player, and to have that player sign one. Literally begging. Then it happens, and most of us are like, “no, wait, we meant a successful offer sheet” while ridiculing Montreal for whiffing.

Sorry, but don’t we want to see these fishing expeditions every summer? Don’t we want that moment of exhilaration when one team attempts to raid another, even if the effort is foolhardy? Don’t we want that one out of, like, a dozen times when this actually works?

(Hint to future offer-sheeters: Go for the third-liner in their early 20s on a cap-strapped team instead.)

Instead, we’re reminded why we never see them, which is that they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

So instead of getting applauded for the effort, Bergevin gets slaughtered by the Montreal Gazette, which called his strategy a “massive fail” and wrote: “This is just one more spin from the cynical Canadiens management team. It’s an effort to distract fans from the fact that they were unable to sign the guy they really wanted, Matt Duchene.”

No, they weren’t. That’s because you have to have a player who wants to actually sign with your team. Matt Duchene wanted to play for the Nashville Predators. This was the worst-kept secret in hockey. He has a house there now. They traded P.K. Subban to create cap room to sign him. He was never coming to Montreal. It’s a non-starter.

Sebastian Aho, meanwhile? He wanted to play for Montreal. Full stop. You don’t sign an offer sheet if you don’t want to play for the team that tendered it. So Dundon doth protest too much. “If [Aho] said it, it would be different. But he didn’t. The fact that an agent said it means there’s no credibility to it,” said the Carolina owner. C’mon, man. That’s not how this works.

Does that mean he doesn’t want to play for the Hurricanes? Of course not. One can be of two minds: ‘If they don’t match, it’s cool, because I get to play for a franchise I fancy; if they do match, it’s cool, because I really enjoy playing for my current team as well.’

Which is essentially what Shea Weber said back in 2012.

“We utilized the CBA the best way we could with the way it is. It worked out great. I love in Nashville. The team stepped up,” he said at the time.

Oh, his agent said other things, like Aho’s did. Mean things. Calling the Predators a rebuilding team, and claiming Weber much preferred the upward trajectory of the Philadelphia Flyers, whose offer sheet he signed. Hoping that the 14-year, $110 million deal with the $52 million dollars in bonus money in the first four seasons would prove too rich for them to match.

It wasn’t. The Preds had already lost Ryan Suter as a free agent to the Minnesota Wild. They weren’t going to lose Weber too. So they pushed aside four first-round picks to make a statement and bring him back, at great cost. Well, until they traded him four years later.

There have been only two offers sheets signed by a player since then: Ryan O’Reilly in 2013, and then Aho on Monday. As much as we criticize the “old boys” in the general manager’s chairs for not utilizing offer sheets, in the end, players still have to sign them. And they don’t: Brayden Point wants to stay in Tampa, Kasperi Kapenen wants to be a Leaf (and already signed a new deal), and so on.

Perceptions change for a general manager if they fail to snag a restricted free agent they’ve offer-sheeted. Do perceptions change for the player?

I asked Scott Barry, the Predators super fan who dresses in a luchador mask as “The Ultimate Predator,” about how he remembered the Weber offer sheet.

“I was never upset at Webs for the offer sheet. I don’t think many Preds fans were, to be honest. Offer sheets happen. If anything, we were more upset with the team for letting it get that far,” he recalled.

“Everyone knew Shea was going to get paid, so why not just pay the man? When the offer sheet hit, I was more worried that Nashville might not match. At that time, we weren’t exactly flush with money or making huge contracts. As far as affecting my thoughts on Shea, he had to do what was best for his family, and if Nashville wasn’t going to pay, as much as I would have hated it, I’d still be a fan, truly — I think most of Nashville would. He and Pekka [Rinne] were the faces of the franchise for a long time, it’d take a very heinous act, in my opinion, for Nashville to feel the way about Webs as we do about say, Suter or [Alexander] Radulov.”

(Radulov, please recall, took his talents to the KHL after three years in Nashville.)

Things were different with O’Reilly, last seen hoisting the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues. As an RFA of the Colorado Avalanche, he signed an offer sheet in 2013 with the Flames for two years and $10 million.

“The ROR saga was extremely divisive in the fan base,” recalled a long-time Avs blogger who goes by the moniker ‘Jibblescribbits.’ “I was in the minority, but I was glad he flexed his financial muscle a little. At the time, the Avs had gone full-blown cheapskate and were coasting. But I’d say the vast majority of the fan base turned on him and thought he was being greedy. His dad inserted himself via Twitter and it just gave the whole proceeding a weird flavor. I’d say most Avs fans do not like him at all. They see him as being all about the money. I didn’t though, but I am more player-sided in contracts than most fans, I think.”

So what about Aho?

The smartest thing Dundon did, besides quickly matching an offer sheet for a player that the Hurricanes would spend the next five years trying to replace, was to completely exonerate the player who signed with another team by tossing his agent under the bus. “The question is ‘do you think you should believe an agent?’ and you guys can figure that out,” he said.

But Tom Edwards, a Hurricanes season-ticket holder who contributes to the Section 328 podcast, said he doesn’t have any ill will towards agent Gerry Johannson nor to his client.

“They had a number in mind. The negotiation was going to take probably the entire summer at this rate. Montreal’s offer was what they were looking for,” he told me.

When it comes to offer sheets and perceptions, the most important one to Edwards is that his franchise is no longer one to be taken for granted.

“I think that Dundon’s message helped a bit, because after years of [owner Peter] Karmanos, it was nice to be in a position where there wasn’t a thought that we’d take the cheap way out. If this happens three or four years ago, I don’t know if Aho gets matched.”

Heck, maybe next time it’ll be the Hurricanes casting the offer sheet line.

Oh and FYI: Canadiens forward Max Domi is a restricted free agent next summer, followed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi in 2021.

Three things about NHL free agency

1. Through 4:51 p.m. on July 1, NHL teams had signed 86 players to 173 contract years and $556,835,000. Meanwhile, in the NBA, the contracts signed by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler totaled $589,000,000, with 16 contract years. Just in case you were wondering how the other half lives.

2. My favorite big signing: Joe Pavelski to the Dallas Stars at three years and $21 million. My favorite little signing: Joonas Donskoi to the Colorado Avalanche for four years and $15.6 million. My least favorite signing: Tyler Myers to the Vancouver Canucks for five years and $30 million (though I’m pleasantly surprised the average annual value wasn’t even higher). The signing I can’t wrap my brain around no matter how many times I try: Brandon Tanev for six years and $21 million to the Penguins.

3. When the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup sometime in the next three years, the Matt Duchene trade is going to be seen at the turning point of the organization. Another branch on that trade tree: Getting defenseman Samuel Girard from the Predators in that three-way deal, and using the Senators’ pick last month to draft another defenseman in Bowen Byram. Having both gave them the flexibility to move defenseman Tyson Barrie to the Maple Leafs for Nazem Kardri, who dramatically upgrades their center depth in a conference that demands it.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

ESPN’s prospect and draft analyst Chris Peters joined us in Bristol to analyze the first few hours of free agency in alphabetic team order. Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews talked to me about being an EA Sports NHL 20 cover boy, growing the game of hockey, and expectations for next season (31:22). Aleksander Barkov talked to Emily Kaplan about the new look Panthers (57:45). Listen to the whole thing here.

Puck headlines

Fun look back at the history of the Canucks’ jerseys. Can’t wait to purchase an Elias Pettersson ‘Electric Skate’ sweater this season.

What’s going to happen with Alabama-Huntsville hockey now that the WCHA is fracturing?

Good piece on Wyatt Russell, a.k.a. the best part of that second “Goon” movie.

The top 10 bounce-back candidates after free agency. Not holding my breath on that Cam Talbot one.

Ryan Lambert was not a fan on that offer sheet from the Canadiens.

Looking forward to the Capitals’ tough free-agent calls, like Braden Holtby.

Do the Blackhawks have the best goalie tandem in the NHL?

P.K. Subban plus July 4 equals … this.

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Women’s hockey is thriving on the grassroots level, even as the pros struggle towards a path to the future. ($)

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Free-agent frenzy winners and losers.

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