Why Tkachuk, Sandin, Robertson could earn looks

Why Tkachuk, Sandin, Robertson could earn looks

For two straight years, we’ve seen NHL free agency’s ultimate tool of chaos — the offer sheet — wielded by general managers hoping to snag a quality young talent.

Rewind back to this time last year, and it was Montreal Canadiens third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi stolen away by the Carolina Hurricanes courtesy of a one-year offer sheet. A couple years before that, it was the Habs trying to do the same to the Canes, offering star centre Sebastian Aho a five-year sheet.

You have to go back six years to find the previous flurry of attempts — the Flames trying to get Ryan O’Reilly from the Avalanche in 2013, the Flyers trying to ink then-Predator Shea Weber in 2012, the Sharks hoping to land Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago in 2010. Like Aho’s deal, all three of those were matched by the players’ clubs, with the last rare successful offer-sheet transfer before Kotkaniemi coming in 2007, when the Oilers signed Dustin Penner away from the Ducks.

It’s a tool clubs have turned to time and time again, and with plenty of talented teams navigating the off-season with limited cap space, and the Canes coming off a successful attempt last year, will we see more sheets tendered this week?

The key reason we just might: the absurd plethora of talent sitting in this year’s restricted free-agent pool. From goaltenders to defenders to premier scorers up front, there are plenty of names worth taking a gamble on.

Before we get to those top options though, a rundown of the rules: As the process currently stands, if a club tenders an offer sheet to an RFA, and the offer sheet is signed by that RFA, the club that would be receiving the player must send that player’s former team some level of draft-pick compensation, the haul going the other way determined by the average annual value of said offer sheet.

Here’s how the compensation tiers break down:

$1,386,490 or below — No draft choices

Over $1,386,490 to $2,100,742 — Third-round pick

Over $2,100,742 to $4,201,488 — Second-round pick

Over $4,201,488 to $6,302,230 — First-round pick, Third-round pick

Over $6,302,230 to $8,402,975 — First-round pick, Second-round pick, Third-round pick

Over $8,402,975 to $10,503,720 — 2 first-round picks, Second-round pick, Third-round pick

Over $10,503,720 — 4 first-round picks

Starting Tuesday, RFAs can be contacted regarding potential offer-sheets. Let’s take a look at who might be receiving a call:

Jake Oettinger
Goaltender, Dallas Stars

Drafted 26th overall by Dallas back in 2017, the 23-year-old netminder has been working his way up over the past half-decade, splitting time between the AHL and the big club. He logged seven regular-season games in Dallas this past season, and 10 for the AHL’s Texas Stars. But it was what Oettinger did in these past playoffs that likely had GMs around the league paying attention.

Over the course of a wild seven-game first-round series against the Calgary Flames, the young ‘tender put up a ridiculous .954 save percentage, earned a Game 2 shutout, and gave his Stars a fighting chance until the very end. While Dallas earned three wins in that series, Oettinger’s best performances came in two of the games his side lost — a ridiculous 50-save performance in Game 4, and 64 saves in an all-or-nothing Game 7.

Fresh off that sterling post-season showing, he’s something of a perfect storm for clubs looking to tender an offer-sheet. There’s no question the talent is there, and at only 23, the sky’s the limit for the Lakeville, Minn., native. More than that, few things entice GMs around the game more than a potential franchise netminder. But the sample size is small enough that it’s not necessarily a sure thing, which complicates things for Dallas.

The Stars have no other obvious No. 1 option in net, and they have around $18 million in cap space to work with (albeit, with some key names to sign), so the likely scenario is Dallas inking Oettinger and heading into 2022-23 with him pencilled in as the starter.

But if someone inks the RFA to an offer sheet with a major salary — say, something over $6.3 million per year — do they match and gamble on the young netminder continuing at the level he showed this past post-season, or do they take the haul of picks and look for another option in free agency?

Rasmus Sandin
Defenceman, Toronto Maple Leafs

The situation surrounding a potential Sandin offer sheet has as much to do with the young defenceman’s potential as the cap crunch felt by his current club. At 22 years old, Sandin’s already showed glimpses of quality through his three seasons with the Maple Leafs — at times rising high enough on the depth chart to quarterback the team’s power play.

Injuries hampered his 2021-22 campaign, but Sandin still managed a decent showing through 51 games. More importantly, all that he’s showed so far suggests that down the line, after he has more experience under his belt and a greater role to work with, he could grow into something formidable.

Again, though, the key is Toronto’s cap situation. The Leafs have around $10 million in cap space, with a massive hole to be filled in net as the club looks to either bring back Jack Campbell or sign a star goalie via free agency. Either way, it’ll cost them, and recent reports of a deal to bring in Matt Murray (who carries a $6.25-million cap hit) won’t be any different.

That being the case, the opportunity is there for an opposing club to take a swing at Sandin knowing the Leafs are limited in what they could match. Something above the $6.3-million threshold seems a bit too hefty for the still-unproven rearguard, but one level down, between $4.2 million and $6.3 million seems a decent bet for a team desperate to add some young offensive talent to their back end. 

Asked about the potential of that happening GM Kyle Dubas had this to say recently: “If there’s going to be an offer sheet, the sooner the better, so we can make our decision and move on.” The club recently signed fellow young defenceman Timothy Liljegren to a two-year deal at $1.4 million per year. All signs point to the team likely wanting Sandin at a similar number — do they match something roughly $3 million higher, or take the first-round pick after years of dealing away their own?

Matthew Tkachuk
Left Wing, Calgary Flames

While all eyes are on Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, the Flames have another complicated situation to sort out with RFA winger Tkachuk. The question with Tkachuk has always been about where he actually falls on that spectrum of star talent.

Back in the OHL, he put up 107 points for the London Knights as part of one of the most dominant lines in junior-hockey history. But some wondered how much of his success was driven by linemate Mitch Marner, who potted 121. Then came the big leagues, and Tkachuk kept putting up numbers — 24 goals in Year 2, 34 in Year 3, and finally, last season, a 42-goal, 104-point outburst. Again, some had doubts, partly because Tkachuk earned that century mark as part of another dominant line, which saw Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm each earn 40 goals and 100 points as well, and seemingly play greater roles in leading the plays that amassed those totals.

So, where does that leave the Flames, Tkachuk, and other potential suitors? Given how his recent three-year, $21-million deal shook out, the 24-year-old’s qualifying offer from the Flames will be $9 million. Calgary will likely look to stick as close to that number as possible on a long-term deal, if not a shade lower. Is there a team out there whose need for offensive help is dire enough that they would try to pry Tkachuk away at a bigger-ticket salary?

Go back to those compensation thresholds, and that’s where it gets interesting. A signed offer sheet for Tkachuk between $8.4 million and $10.5 million per year would land the Flames two first-round picks, a second-round pick and a third-round pick if they didn’t match. Anything over $10.5 million would net the Flames four first-round picks. 

Calgary is already hoping to bring Gaudreau back somewhere around the $10-million-per-year mark. If they’re pushed to sign Tkachuk at a similar salary, would they — and could they — do it? The first issue is whether they view Tkachuk as a $10-million player. The second is the fact that inking both he and Gaudreau to $10-million deals would eat nearly all of their cap space for next season (roughly $26 million), with a whole host of other key roster questions still in need of answering.

Andrew Mangiapane
Left Wing, Calgary Flames

This is where it gets truly interesting for the Flames. Behind Gaudreau and Tkachuk on the depth chart, GM Brad Treliving has yet another decision to make on breakout star Mangiapane. A sixth-round pick back in 2015, the 26-year-old has been on the rise for years, pushing through a couple dominant 100-point campaigns to close out his OHL career, steadily improving his numbers in the AHL, then the NHL, and finally putting up an impressive 35-goal effort in Calgary last season.

For a club that seemingly needs to hold onto every ounce of offensive depth it has, if not add to that stock, Mangiapane presents another problem for Treliving and Co. He’s coming off a pair of show-me contracts — a one-year, $715,000 deal in 2019, followed by a two-year deal at $2.43 million per year, which he just finished up — meaning the young winger is likely looking for a sizable raise after his 2021-22 offensive outburst.

But as we said, the Flames are already feeling a bit pressed given their other contract situations. If Gaudreau and Tkachuk both return to Calgary (which still seems likely, despite Gaudreau’s impending UFA status), they likely come back for somewhere around a combined $18 million per year. That would leave Calgary with roughly $8 million in cap space, with only eight NHL-calibre forwards signed, RFA defender Oliver Kylington in need of a new deal, and the club still seemingly needing to add more talent to a squad that fell just short in the playoffs.

If an opposing club offers Mangiapane something in the higher end of the $4.2 million-to–$6.3 million range — or something just above $6.3 million — it’s tough to see how Calgary could manage to match. And after the steady progress seen from the young winger — that 35-goal outburst preceded by a starring performance at the 2021 World Championship, which saw Mangiapane lead Canada to gold and earn MVP honours — he seems well worth a $6-million gamble.

Jason Robertson
Left Wing, Dallas Stars

Robertson might be the toughest RFA to try and pry away from his club. At 22 years old, the Arcadia, Calif., native has already proven he’s a bona fide elite talent, putting up 41 goals and 79 points last season after an impressive rookie campaign saw him post 45 points through 51 games. He was Dallas’s leading goal-scorer last season, their second-highest scorer overall, and — with most of the club’s offensive leaders getting on in age — he’s the future of the Stars’ offence.

Of course, given the rest of the team’s cap picture, there’s still a chance an offer sheet could push Dallas into a tough decision.

As it stands, the Stars have around $18.5 million in cap space, and like we said, they already have one key decision on their hands with Oettinger, who will eat into a decent chunk of that. They also have Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn each making more than $9 million per year for the foreseeable future, and Miro Heiskanen not too far behind at $8.45 million per year long-term. More importantly, they’re far from a complete team who can contend right now, meaning they need space to add more talent as they move along.

If Oettinger and Robertson both come in at reasonable numbers, they can do that. But what happens if a team forces Dallas’s hand by inking the young 40-goal-scorer to a deal with an AAV in the higher end of that $8.4 million-to-$10.5 million range? It would be a hefty gamble on a winger with one year of elite production, but one that teams might be willing to take given what Robertson’s shown as a premier goal-scorer in the game already.

Anything near $10 million per year for the 22-year-old would mean Dallas would have little room to address any other roster questions after getting Oettinger re-signed as well, making the possibility of a haul of draft picks (including either two or four first-rounders) potentially enticing.

Artturi Lehkonen
Left Wing, Colorado Avalanche

After the sterling run Colorado just put together, you can bet on clubs around the league looking to pick off anyone they can from the Avalanche’s roster, just as we’ve seen happen with Cup winners past. And while the Avs have plenty of bigger fish to deal with, they have an interesting case among their free-agent pile in Lehkonen.

Acquired by the Avalanche in March (for defensive prospect Justin Barron and a second-round pick), Lehkonen put up eight goals and 14 points through 20 post-season games for Colorado — that goal sum tied with Conn Smythe winner Cale Makar for fourth among all Avs. 

As Colorado looks to rebuild its championship roster, it has a number of massive decisions still to make — none more important than what to do with UFAs Nazem Kadri, Val Nichushkin, Josh Manson, and Andre Burakovsky. They have some financial flexibility, with roughly $21 million in cap space, but again, a hefty list of names to either bring back or replace, with a couple atop that list figuring to get some big-ticket deals.

Where does that leave Lehkonen? The 27-year-old hasn’t exactly dominated through six years in the NHL, but he’s coming off a career-year with 18 goals and 38 points split between Montreal and Colorado in 2021-22. And more importantly, he’s proven he’s a playoff performer, twice scoring the clutch goal that sent his team to the Stanley Cup Final, first for Montreal in 2021 and then for Colorado in 2022.

Lehkonen’s overall body of work as an NHLer doesn’t seem quite enough to merit a deal above $6.3 million, but if a club offers him a deal in that $4.2 million-to-$6.3 million range (it wouldn’t be the first time a team’s paid handily for a Cup winner with clutch playoff highlights), would the Avs match, or let Lehkonen walk while they sort out their more pressing negotiations?

Noah Dobson
Defenceman, New York Islanders

A prime example of quality-player-meets-team-with-cap-issues. Fresh off a breakout year that saw the Dobson put up 51 points from the back end, the 12th-overall pick’s earned a weighty raise on his next deal. But Lou Lamoriello’s club seems limited in what they can offer, given the volume of middling contracts they have on the books. 

The club has just $11 million to work with at the moment with some other blue-line free agents to address. More importantly, they have to re-sign Mathew Barzal to what figures to be a hefty extension after next season, along with Semyon Varlamov, without much other money coming off the books. Meaning a sizable extension for Dobson complicates things.

In terms of the interest the young rearguard will garner, chances are it’ll be sky high. A 22-year-old right-handed defenceman who put up 51 points on a club that doesn’t have massive offensive stars helping him pad his numbers? That’s a rare find in free agency, and teams who need a young star to lead their back end are surely paying close attention.

Take a look around the league at what other talented defenders are getting, and Dobson looks primed to earn some silly money. Sixteen D-men will earn more than $8 million per year in 2022-23, 10 will earn above $9 million, and a fair number near the higher end of the $9 million-to-$10 million range just signed their deals recently.

Dobson finished with the 15th-most points of any NHL defender last season, at age 22. Something in that $6.3 million-to-$8.4 million range seems well-earned. Even something a shade higher than $8.4 million doesn’t seem too far-fetched given what other defenders around the league are making next year. It would be a gamble after one breakout year, sure, but that’s what the offer-sheet game is all about. And there are few talents teams crave more than offensively-skilled right-handed defencemen, let alone ones that have already put up numbers this early in their career.

If someone’s willing to take a shot on Dobson’s potential, does Lamoriello match and make the young defender the highest-paid player on the team? It doesn’t exactly have the ring of a sure thing.

Kaapo Kakko
Right Wing, New York Rangers

Like Sandin, Kakko’s situation is as much about where’s at — and where the Rangers believe he’s at — as what his club’s cap situation looks like. The 2019 second-overall pick arrived in New York with high hopes as the Rangers looked to retool following some disappointing campaigns outside of the post-season. They’ve found their way back much quicker than anyone expected, but Kakko hasn’t played too central a role in that resurgence.

Through three seasons with the Rangers, the 21-year-old winger’s posted 58 points across 157 total games. He took a step this past season with 18 points in 43 games, scoring at a higher clip than he had through Years 1 and 2. Another step came in the playoffs, as the Rangers pushed to the third round before losing out to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Put on a line with fellow young guns Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil — dubbed the Kid Line — Kakko’s trio held their own and played their part as New York’s top-tier stars led the way. But, again, it was Lafreniere and Chytil doing most of the producing, the pair finishing with nine points apiece while Kakko earned five over 19 games.

Moving forward, the question is what Kakko feels he’s earned, what the Rangers feel he’s worth, and how much the latter can handle given all the other stars they have to pay. With four top-end talents making more than $8 million per year next season — led by Artemi Panarin at $11.6 million — the Rangers have to be cautious with how they spend. They have about $10 million in cap space to work with, and all their key roster questions sorted, but they do have more than a few important decisions to make on some other free agents as well.

Kakko hasn’t shown enough yet to earn an offer sheet above that $6.3 million tier, but like Lehkonen, if a club came to him with something just a shade higher than that $4.2 million threshold — a decent gamble on a young second-overall pick who’s shown flashes of potential — the Rangers would have a tough choice on their hands.

Kailer Yamamoto
Right Wing, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers have three RFAs to figure out — 22-year-old centreman Ryan McLeod, former fourth-overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi, and 23-year-old Yamamoto. If not for the likelihood that he’ll be traded anyways, Puljujarvi would be a worthy offer-sheet candidate as well. But with the polarizing Finn seemingly out of the picture, the Oilers’ situation on the wing gets even more interesting.

Yamamoto’s coming off a career-best campaign that saw him hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time, and post 41 points in all through 81 games. But he’s shown glimpses of potential since he debuted with the Oilers, putting up 26 points through 27 games in his first extended stay in Edmonton. It’s clear the young winger still has more to give, as he has some dynamic skill that’s only just beginning to show with more regularity.

There’s no question he’s a key part of Edmonton’s plans given the club’s dire need for talented wingers, especially with Puljujarvi likely leaving town soon. So the Oilers would surely be motivated to keep Yamamoto. Once again, though, the club’s cap picture could make that difficult.

With Connor McDavid eating up $12.5 million per year, and Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse combining for more than $17 million per year themselves, the Oilers don’t have much room to overpay anyone. They’re operating with just under $16 million in cap space at the moment — a fair bit of that recently opening up courtesy of Duncan Keith’s retirement — but it seems a decent amount of that space will be used in trying to bring in a star netminder. And after how the series panned out against Colorado, it would be fair to assume they’re be looking to add more offensive talent as well.

Which once again opens up opportunities for teams to press a bit, and potentially offer Yamamoto something the Oilers wouldn’t be able to stomach. Like Kakko, the young Oiler hasn’t shown enough to earn something ridiculous, but again, it’s in that $4.2 million-to-$6.3 million tier that things get intriguing. Could an offer near the higher end of that range push the Oilers to walk away and take the picks, given the other questions they’re trying to sort out in free agency?

Patrik Laine
Left Wing, Columbus Blue Jackets

Laine’s found himself in one of the most tumultuous free-agent situations, offer sheet or not. How do you assess the value of a 24-year-old who once seemed on the cusp of becoming the game’s most dominant goal-scorer, but now seems written off as a point-producer who doesn’t offer much beyond the scoresheet, and doesn’t hit that sheet with the consistency of the game’s top-tier talent?

Even if Laine’s fallen off the form that had him potting 36 goals as a rookie and 44 as a 19-year-old in his second season as an NHLer, he’s still coming off a 2021-22 campaign in which he was a point-a-game scorer, posting 26 goals and 56 points through 56 games.

The Blue Jackets paid a hefty price to bring him to Columbus, trading away their own lottery-pick talent in Pierre-Luc Dubois, so chances are they aren’t likely to let Laine go without a fight. But if there’s a club willing to roll the dice on the winger, the offer-sheet compensation seems one of the few ways Columbus could recoup some quality assets if they do feel Laine might not be the future centrepiece they thought he was.

For other clubs around the league, the allure is obvious. While there might be flaws in his game, there’s no question Laine still has undeniable offensive skill. And he’s also only 24 years old. In the right group, the right role, with the right talent around him, who knows what he could still become?

Prying him away from Columbus would probably mean inking him to an offer sheet above that $8.2 million threshold, or even above the $10.2 million threshold. It would be a risky move, sure, but one that might be well worth it for a club truly desperate for offensive talent.

The Blue Jackets have roughly $17 million in cap space, but the front office has other long-term questions in need of answers too, and simply might not view Laine as a $9-10 million talent at this point. If that’s the case, moving on from the trade with a haul of first-round picks to show for it might not be the worst option.

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