As frustrating as the first week of free agency has been for Bruins fans, things could always be worse — given the financial state of other franchises around the league.
The dust hasn't fully settled since the UFA market opened up last Friday, and yet, a number of teams are either closed for business or already looking to sell in order to remain fiscally afloat (and compliant) in an offseason paralyzed by a flat salary cap.
In total, 14 of the 31 NHL clubs boast less than $5 million in available cap space (per CapFriendly) — with the Blues, Coyotes, Golden Knights, Ducks and Capitals currently over the cap ceiling of $81.5 million (teams can exceed the cap by 10% in the offseason). Only the Senators, Red Wings and Devils have more than $15 million to spend — with some of that cap having to be diverted towards RFAs like Anthony Mantha (DET) and Mackenzie Blackwood (NJD).
Boston has more fiscal flexibility than most teams still on the prowl for talent (a little over $11 million in available cap space), but that also doesn't necessarily mean that Boston is flush with additional capital.
By the time Boston is done locking up its restricted free agents (headlined by Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk) — and potentially signing Zdeno Chara to a one-year deal, maybe? — the Original Six club could realistically be down to less than $4-5 million in available cap space. That being said, the B's are still in a much better spot than say, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are currently mired in the ninth circle of cap hell.
Granted, Julian BriseBois and the Bolts have the last laugh as the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but man, the situation down in Tampa is looking pretty dire these days.
Currently, the Lightning have little in terms of financial wiggle room with just $2.895 million left in cap space. Granted, most of the Bolts' core is accounted for — with the likes of Nikita Kucherov ($9.5 million AAV), Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5 million AAV), Steven Stamkos ($8.5 million AAV), Victor Hedman ($7.875 million AAV), Brayden Point ($6.75 million AAV) and Ryan McDonagh ($6.75 million AAV) all under contract.
But Tampa Bay still has plenty of business to take care of when it comes to its next wave of talent — as Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are all due for sizable pay raises as RFAs. Even if those three all take short-term, team-friendly deals, Tampa Bay still needs to move some cap out to accommodate those three, with the Bolts potentially exceeding that 10% overage threshold this fall if they don't free up money elsewhere before inking all their RFAs to new deals.
But moving out players is easier said than done — especially in an offseason where teams have proven to be a lot less willing to take on contracts given the uncertain financial climate across the league, especially with a flat cap standing as a very real possibility for the 2021-22 season.
The Lightning tried to free up some cash by exposing forward Tyler Johnson to waivers — hoping a team would scoop him up and take some of his contract (four years, $20 million remaining) off their hands. No team bit at the offer. And even if Tampa Bay does manage to move Johnson via trade, likely sacrificing additional assets such as draft picks in the process, the Bolts likely need to move another contract just in order to sign all of their RFAs, given that both Cirelli and Sergachev could easily warrant at least $4 million in AAV with their new deals, and that might be low-balling it.
As such, Tampa Bay might need to deal a valuable middle-six option like Alex Killorn ($4.45 million AAV) or Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million) just in order to remain cap compliant after signing their top RFAs. During a regular offseason, this likely wouldn't be an issue, with teams willing to take on those contracts in order to inject a top-six winger into their lineup. But this fall, fewer teams have shown a tendency to bite on such an offer — with the Lightning's list of potential trade partners drying up as more free agents go off the board (the team with the most cap space in Ottawa signed UFA winger Evgenii Dadonov to a three-year, $15 million deal on Thursday). And even if there were suitors, a number of viable trade candidates on Tampa's roster also feature no-trade and no-movement clauses, making it harder for BriseBois to just dump a player to a team like Detroit or Ottawa.
Simply put, the Lightning are stuck in a tough spot right now, with their only escape from cap hell coming if another team is willing to bail them out. Whatever out Tampa takes, they need to have things all accounted for come the start of the 2021 season, because if they're not cap compliant ...
“It’s not an ‘option,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic's Joe Smith on Wednesday of the consequences facing a team that's not cap compliant. “Team doesn’t play (in 2021).”
Fair to say, the reigning Cup champions are now in a pretty vulnerable spot, unable to do much in terms of re-signing their exciting young stars if they don't find cap relief soon — nor have the means to fight back against, say, ... an offer sheet.
If the Bruins still intend to swing for the fences this offseason — a scenario becoming less realistic by the day given the number of prime targets being taken off the UFA board — could they attempt to drop the hammer on a financially crippled Tampa Bay team and put their divisional foe in a bind by signing one of their RFAs to an offer sheet?
Yes, as we noted earlier, Boston doesn't have an absurd amount of cash available if they also want to sign Grzelcyk and DeBrusk, but they do have the means of unloading additional contracts if necessary, even if it means moving a player like John Moore ($2.75 million) for very little in return. Simply put, you deal with some of the headaches that come with clearing a few extra dollars if you have a chance to steal a player like Sergachev (a 21-year-old, left-shot D that could form one hell of a top pairing with Charlie McAvoy for years to come) from your top roadblock in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, even if offer sheets are always tossed out as threat each offseason, it's not very often that you see such a maneuver executed between clubs.
Last July, Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho agreed to a five-year, $42.27-million offer sheet with the Montreal Canadiens — standing as just the ninth offer sheet doled out since the salary cap was instituted.
Whether it be due to the lack of player movement among top-flight RFAs, or the stigma that surrounds GMs willing to submit such an offer, offer sheets remain the NHL offseason’s true white whale.
In most cases, the team that holds the rights to the RFA that signed the offer sheet simply matches that contract, much as how the Hurricanes gladly agreed to pay Aho that $42.27 million contract. In total, of those nine sheets that have been tendered since 2005, only one has led to the original club letting an RFA go, with the Oilers adding forward Dustin Penner after Anaheim opted to not match the five-year, $21.5-million deal that Edmonton offered him.
Oftentimes, the team willing to put forth an offer sheet will do everything in its power to make the team that holds that RFA's rights balk at matching that deal — whether it be front-loading the contract in terms of salary, incorporating a ton of signing bonuses that account for a major payout right off the bat or flat out overpaying to prompt the original team to relent and let their RFA go.
So what would happen if Boston was to offer a player like Sergachev a multi-year contract worth an average annual value of, say $6.5 million? That puts a team like Tampa in a bind, given they currently have a little over $2 million left in cap space and must also account for both Cirelli and Cernak. Does BriseBois deal away valuable forwards like Killorn, Johnson or Palat for little in return just to match that offer to Sergachev, or do the Bolts just relent and let Boston snag their up-and-coming star defenseman?
Of course, there are mechanisms involved with the offer-sheet process that does preclude teams from issuing them to opposing RFAs — as there is a heavy price involved beyond the sizable contract being handed out.
If the team holding the RFA’s rights opts to not match the contract during the seven days that the NHL gives them from the moment an offer sheet is signed, then that team is compensated with draft picks from the team that adds said RFA.
If an offer sheet features a deal with an average annual value of $1,439,820 million or below, then no draft compensation is awarded. But as the AAV rises, so too does the haul that the original club receives.
Here’s how the whole draft compensation scale pans out:
So if Boston was to sign Sergachev to a deal with an AAV of $6.5 million and Tampa doesn't match, the Bruins would have to relinquish their first and third-round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft. Ooooof. Still, for a chance to both add a potential star blueliner for years to come — and give Tampa a hurting in the process — could it be worth the loss in draft capital?
Ultimately, at this point, Boston doesn't have a lot of options remaining when it comes to adding game-changers to this roster without sacrificing NHL talent in the process via trade (dealing for another top-four defenseman will likely subtract from a forward corps already set to miss David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand in January). It may be an unlikely scenario, but dropping an offer sheet on a team with little wiggle room when it comes to the cap could be a devastating trick up the sleeve of any GM with the fiscal means to execute it, especially this offseason.
“I think every general manager would be lying to you if they said they wouldn’t do it,” Sweeney said last July of offer sheets. “It just depends on the situation in terms of, back to the question earlier, how you’re going to forecast things coming back at you. It’s just, it’s a mechanism that exists, and I think everybody would be lying if they didn’t say they wouldn’t be using it in some point in time if it was the right thing to do.”