Mark Stone is in the final season of a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Ottawa Senators. He’s due for a hefty raise, which is troublesome for Ottawa considering their tenuous financial status. Stone is currently producing more than a point per game, and is one of the best two-way wingers in the league. Stone is one year away from Unrestricted Free Agency, and Ottawa would be wise to sign him long term before they lose him for nothing.
He’s in the same age and production range as Phil Kessel, when Kessel got an eight-year, $8 million extension. As a percentage of the cap (12.44 percent as of the time Kessel signed), that would be $9.33 million today. Ottawa is likely going to draw out the process and attempt to lower his price, by qualifying him as a restricted free agent. This would leave him susceptible to offer sheets from other teams. While it is believed Stone would like to stay in Ottawa, it wouldn’t be hard for him to consider teams with much, much greener pastures.
Offer sheets are a contract that a player has agreed to with a team who does not own their rights. The team that owns the player’s rights can elect to match the offer and keep the player or take the compensation based on their salary. Offer sheets are almost non-existent in today’s NHL, with only eight being signed since the 2005 lockout. Only Ryan O’Reilly has signed an offer sheet under the current collective bargaining agreement, which was matched. Dustin Penner is the lone player to have moved to a new team as a result of a successful offer sheet since 2005.
General managers are extremely hesitant to do anything that would damage their reputation around the league. An offer sheet damages reputations because teams generally agree not to do it in order to keep restricted free agent prices down. Typically, it’s a good idea to honour these agreements, but when a special player becomes a restricted free agent, it may be worth the damaged reputation. Ottawa may just be the perfect target because Eugene Melnyk is already gutting the team to save money, tying general manager Pierre Dorion‘s hands in the process.
Two major factors to consider when preparing an offer sheet would be the price of the compensatory picks and the likelihood of the original team matching the offer. If a great player becomes a restricted free agent, it would require your next four first-round picks to sign him, it’s usually not worth it. Conversely, if you can sign a restricted free agent to a contract that is at the fair market value or better, why would the original team not match it?
If Mark Stone was a restricted free agent last summer and a team signed him to an offer sheet of $8 million per year, it would fall under the compensation of two firsts, a second, and a third. Probably not worth it. However, restricted free agent compensation is based on “league average salary” and the thresholds increase each year. From 2016 to 2017, there was a 4.55 percent increase. If we apply a similar increase again, the relevant compensation levels for next year are as follows: ~$6.15m to ~8.25m results in a first, second, and third in compensation. ~$8.25m to ~$10.3m results in two firsts, a second, and a third.
So who’s going to Offer Sheet Mark Stone?
For once, my answer is not the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although it would be nice to see him in Blue and White, the Colorado Avalanche are a much better fit. The Avs have some great offensive weapons in Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Jost, and Mikko Rantanen. Their defence is improving with Nikita Zadorov and Samuel Girard, and they are currently eyeing a playoff spot despite finishing dead last in 2016-17. Not too dissimilar to last year’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
Trending in the right direction, it’s the perfect time to start adding players to help reach the top of their division. The Avalanche have lots of cap space down the line, and all the picks needed to make it happen. Not only that, but they have Ottawa’s first-round pick either this year or next from the horrendous Matt Duchene trade. If Ottawa decides to defer to the 2019 pick, Colorado could submarine Ottawa’s hopes of finishing anywhere outside the basement by robbing them of their best forward.
What the Offer Sheet would look like
For starters, the offer sheet would not be in the bracket that would reward Ottawa with two firsts, a second, and a third. After that, it cannot be longer than seven years, because Colorado does not own the rights to Stone. Before anyone suggests the Avs go and offer Stone seven years at $8.25 million, restricted free agent compensation is based on the lesser of the years offered, or five years.
This means that contract, a total of $57.75 million, would land in the highest bracket of four first picks, despite having an Averaged Annual Value (AAV) of $8.25m. Instead, the Avalanche would be wise to offer a contract just below the threshold for two first-round picks, whether it be five or six years. Due to the five-year rule, the total amount of the contract would be the same regardless.
The way the Avalanche could sign Stone to a contract that Ottawa wouldn’t match would be to make it as unattractive as possible to the Senators. A big strategy would be front-loading and lockout-proofing the contract, in addition to a No Movement Clause (NMC). The rules for “front-loaded contracts” state that the paragraph one salary (salary and signing bonuses) may not differ by more than 35% between years, and no salary may be lower than 50% of the highest year. In order to make contracts unattractive, it’s wise to make contracts as expensive as possible, as soon as possible. For reference, see the Shea Weber contract that was a result of a Philadelphia Flyers offer sheet. The Weber contract directly affected new contract rules, so here’s the ‘worst’ contract the Avalanche could offer.
The Offer Sheet
In year one, it would be a $12,095,238 signing bonus, and a $1 million salary. That’s more than any other player would make in 2018-19. In year two, it would be a $7,511,904 signing bonus, and a $1 million salary. In years three, four, and five, it would be a $5,547,619 signing bonus, with a $1 million salary. That’s a five-year, $8.25 million contract with a full NMC, and $36.25 million in signing bonuses.
That contract cannot be traded unless Stone wants to be traded, cannot be sent to the minors without his permission, and if there’s a lockout in 2020-21, Stone still gets paid his $5,547,619 signing bonus, without playing a single game. If he plays poorly and gets bought out, he still gets his $36.25 in signing bonuses, and two-thirds of his remaining salary. Does that sound like a Eugene Melnyk type of contract?
Ultimately the goal for the Avalanche is to get Mark Stone for a first, second, and third that are all in the 20-31 range in their respective rounds in 2019. In doing so, they could sabotage the Senators season and end up with a top-five pick in 2019. If they could do so, they end up with a very strong top six for years to come. $12 million on the day Ottawa decides to match should be enough to deter Melnyk, but only if not there’s not much downside in Colorado. Hurting your reputation with a general manager you’ve already fleeced in the past, 12 months is a small price to pay for a chance at a first-line winger.
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