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Hockey Notes

Thanks to cap, offer sheet becoming paper tiger

By Fluto Shinzawa
July 26, 2009

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It has turned one general manager against another, creating a rift that has yet to be bridged. It has turned one offense-first wing into a $7 million player, a number that appears slightly inflated in today’s economy. It has led one organization to respond swiftly to another, resulting in two players earning more than market value.

And for as much roiling as the tool has produced in the post-lockout NHL, trends show that it’s sprinting toward irrelevance.

The mechanism is the offer sheet, one of the most controversial items in a GM’s toolbox. The thunder boomed loudest two summers ago after Dustin Penner accepted a five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet from Edmonton that Anaheim declined to match. Then-Ducks GM Brian Burke brought the hammer down on Kevin Lowe with a double-barreled verbal barrage that accused the then-Oilers GM of leaguewide salary inflation, roster mismanagement, and other sundry blunders. Burke, now the Maple Leafs’ GM, and Lowe have yet to mend their relationship.

But for a tool that has rarely been employed, the offer sheet has produced an inordinate amount of bluster. Since the implementation of the collective bargaining agreement, only five offer sheets have been extended: Philadelphia to Ryan Kesler, Edmonton to Thomas Vanek, Edmonton to Penner, Vancouver to David Backes, and St. Louis to Steve Bernier. All were matched except Edmonton’s offer sheet to Penner.

This summer, not a single offer sheet has been extended. With the salary cap expected to decrease prior to the 2010-11 season, it’s hard to imagine any offer sheets next summer either.

“I don’t know if it’s a thing of the past,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, who could still see Phil Kessel accept an offer sheet. “But teams are very cautious now because of the uncertain cap situation and the economy. The offer sheet is an inherently inflationary tool. It doesn’t jive right now with the cautious approaches that we’re taking.’’

The very nature of extending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent is for one club to pay a premium and make the resulting salary so steep that the original team can’t afford to match. Two summers ago, when the current financial crisis and corresponding cap crunch had yet to strike, the Ducks determined that a $4.5 million annual salary to Penner (more per year than Dallas captain Brenden Morrow, in comparison), a developing power forward, was too rich for their books. Anaheim let Penner walk, Burke took his shots, and the Ducks claimed first-, second-, and third-round picks from Edmonton in the 2008 draft as compensation.

Penner, a former University of Maine star, has delivered underwhelming results in Edmonton. He had 23 goals and 24 assists in his first season as an Oiler. But last season, Penner had only 37 points in 78 games and was criticized by then-coach Craig MacTavish for not competing hard enough.

Last year, only two offer sheets were extended, with the second a response to the first. Vancouver fired the first shot by signing Backes to a three-year, $7.5 million offer sheet. The Blues matched, then delivered a counterpunch by extending a one-year, $2.5 million offer sheet to Bernier. The Canucks also matched.

In 2008-09, Backes put up a 31-23 -54 line, somewhat in line with his $2.5 million annual salary. Bernier scored 15 goals and had 17 assists while earning his $2.5 million. Bernier accepted a pay cut on his latest extension (two years, $4 million).

There remains the possibility that an offer sheet could emerge prior to the start of training camp. The Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky, an unsigned restricted free agent, would be a possible target. Columbus center Gilbert Brule also would draw interest. And, of course, there is Kessel.

“There may still be one,’’ Chiarelli said. “But people are spending their money. There are a number of teams that won’t spend beyond the midpoint, then there are teams that will be at the cap. It’s a big premium. And picks are important.’’

Any offer sheet for Kessel, however, would most likely have come soon after July 1, when the 21-year-old reached RFA status. That’s when teams had free dollars on their budgets and openings on their rosters. But now, following nearly four weeks of free agency, clubs are filling out their 2009-10 lineups and spending their cash. It would most likely require an offer sheet of $5 million or more for the Bruins to consider allowing Kessel to go.

Teams that have $5 million plus to spend, such as the Islanders, Columbus, and Phoenix, have that much space for a reason - they’re not going to approach the cap. Also, those teams generally rebuild via the draft. A team that signs Kessel would have to fork over first-, second-, and third-round picks to the Bruins, in itself an expensive bounty, to say nothing of the cash they would owe their new player.

Looking ahead to next year, teams could have less funds available (a $3 million decrease is a common estimate), which makes it even unlikelier that offer sheets will be extended. Considering the circumstances, it may be time to term the offer sheet extinct.

In offseason, Wheeler hitting the pound sign

The rookie season that started with so much promise ended, for Blake Wheeler, with a seat in the press box against Carolina, scratched in favor of Byron Bitz. So with his late-year fizzle in mind, Wheeler has been adding some bulk this summer (currently he’s over 220 pounds; he finished the season below 215) as preventative maintenance for the rigors of the NHL.

“He’s working out like crazy,’’ said Matt Keator, Wheeler’s agent. “He’s packed on another 7 pounds, but still at 5 percent body fat. He’s feeling pretty darn good.’’

The Bruins are counting on Wheeler (21-24 -45) for increased production this season, especially with Phil Kessel not expected to be ready until December because of offseason shoulder surgery. Even though David Krejci (hip surgery), Wheeler’s center for most of last season, might not be available for the start of 2009-10, the wing is projected to score 25-plus goals. With P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle out of the penalty-killing mix, Wheeler could also be seeing more shorthanded ice time, provided he avoids hitting the wall like he did last season.

“The end of the season gave him a lot of motivation this summer to prove himself,’’ Keator said. “He’s already the type of kid who will come back very hungry, but he’s looking to re-prove himself. He’s highly motivated. He’s in great shape. He’s ready to re-prove himself and he’s putting in the work to get there.’’

Keator also reports that Mark Stuart, one of his other Boston clients, has been playing a lot of three-on-three hockey to emphasize his hands and stickwork. The Bruins were comfortable with Stuart as a bottom-pairing, stay-at-home defenseman last season. But Stuart has shown glimpses of an offensive game when he joins the rush on the left side.

“[Stuart’s] put a real emphasis on stickhandling and puckhandling,’’ Keator said. “He’s working on his skill set. Every couple games, he’d sniff out some good offensive scoring chances.’’

Etc.

Captain Columbus
Columbus signed captain Rick Nash to an eight-year, $62.4 million extension ($7.8 million annual cap hit) that was well worth the price, even for a small-market franchise such as the Blue Jackets. Nash potted 40 goals in 2008-09, fifth most in the league behind Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Carter, Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk. But with a deeper look at Nash’s numbers, you can see why he’s considered the organization’s cornerstone. Only six of Nash’s goals came on the power play, fewest among the NHL’s top 10 goal scorers, indicating how dangerous he is in five-on-five situations. The left wing scored 55 percent of his goals against playoff teams, despite not having a top-flight centerman to get him the puck. Nash has done all this while facing shutdown lines and top defensive pairings in just about every game. Of course, there’s that guy in Washington who’s established himself as the game’s best left wing. But on my all-NHL team, Nash would be a pretty good No. 2 behind Ovechkin. Two years ago, when asked who he considered the league’s best player, one Boston defenseman didn’t hesitate to name Nash.

Loose pucks
Bruins prospect Zach McKelvie, a four-year star at Army, is finding old habits hard to break. When McKelvie and the rest of the development campers visited Fenway Park earlier this month, the defenseman ate only one hot dog, prompting mock outrage from director of player personnel Scott Bradley. Snacking and junk food are discouraged at West Point. If McKelvie is looking for an eating mentor, he can visit the TD Garden press box . . . The Bruins will be joining Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and Toronto for rookie camp in Kitchener, Ontario, in September. The final roster has yet to be finalized, but Boston GM Peter Chiarelli said several players who were rookies in Providence in 2008-09 will attend . . . Still a chance that Dany Heatley could find a way out of Ottawa prior to the start of the season. But if he stays, a possible No. 1 line could have Heatley riding shotgun with Jason Spezza and Alex Kovalev. Deadly, in theory. But what happens when all three opt for the same night off? Ulcers, first of all, for straight-arrow coach Cory Clouston . . . Cycling fanatic Zdeno Chara did not visit the Tour de France this summer, choosing to stay home in Slovakia to work out and tend to the demands of daughter Elliz. Or maybe Big Z was simply too far ahead of Alberto Contador for the TV cameras to catch him.

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