July 6, 2007
The gloves are off
TFP Editor-in-Chief David Pagnotta explains how the Edmonton
Oilers' attempt to sign restricted free agent Thomas Vanek
shouldn't be scorned.
(TORONTO, ON) -- Every now and again, there's some team
that decides to walk across an unspoken line and sign a
restricted free agent to an offer sheet.
The New York Rangers did it, the Carolina Hurricanes did it,
the Philadelphia Flyers did it, and now the Edmonton Oilers
The 'mayhem' started in August of 1997 when the Rangers signed
Joe Sakic to a three-year, $21 million offer sheet. A week
later, the Colorado Avalanche matched the offer, keeping the
future Hall-of-Famer in Denver.
Then, in the middle of a contract holdout with the Detroit Red
Wings, the Hurricanes presented Sergei Fedorov with a
six-year, $38 million offer sheet in February of 1998. While
the NHL rejected the bid four days later because they did not
feel it was in compliance with the present collective
bargaining agreement, an arbitrator ruled in Carolina's favor
and the offer stood. Less than an hour later, the Wings
Fast forward just over eight and a half years later when the
Flyers signed Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler to a
one-year, $1.9 million offer sheet. Two days later, a fairly
infuriated Canucks GM Dave Nonis announced that the team had
matched the offer.
Which brings us to today...
to lure any of this summer's big-name unrestricted
free agents, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe did what he had to
do and signed Buffalo Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek to a
seven-year, $50 million offer sheet.
While many, including the Sabres' management brass,
have already scorned Lowe for taking this sort of
action against a restricted free agent, the Oilers did
I can understand there being an "unwritten rule"
within the league that teams should abide by, but when
push comes to shove and you're backed up against a
wall, you have to do what's best for your franchise.
Lowe wanted Vanek to be a big part of the Oilers' organization
for years to come, which is why he gave him a seven-year deal.
As soon as teams were allowed to speak with another team's
Group II free agents, the Oilers and Vanek's representative
"I've been talking to several teams over the last week or so,"
Vanek's agent, Stephen Bartlett, told TFP. "Things heated up
with the Oilers in the last 24 hours and we worked late into
the night and into this morning.
"We notified the Sabres this morning that we received and
signed an offer sheet from the Oilers."
The Sabres quickly decided to match the offer, even though
they warned the Oilers of the route they would be taking.
"We saw it coming. We had a good sense that it was coming, and
had a much better sense yesterday," said Sabres GM Darcy
Regier. "[We] got wind of it yesterday morning. I spent a lot
of time trying to track [Oilers GM] Kevin Lowe down just to
try and find out whether there was anything to it.
"I spoke with Kevin after 11pm last night. They had not made a
determination as to whether or not they were going to go
through with it. I explained exactly what was going to happen;
why he shouldn't do it, why it was pointless to do it. I tried
again this morning to get a hold of him. I spoke with briefly
and he was going to get back to me, but the Oilers decided to
go through and present Thomas with the offer."
Despite being informed that the Sabres were going to match any
offer, the Oilers decided it was in their best interest to
attempt to sign Vanek to a long-term contract, much to the
chagrin of the Sabres.
"Everybody does things differently," said Sabres managing
partner Larry Quinn. "We have a philosophy that you draft your
players, you develop them, you coach them, you make them part
of a team. Other people think you buy other team's players. We
don't see where that's ever been successful in this league."
Added Regier: "It was always going to be a match situation.
[The Oilers] were well aware of it last night that we were
going to match. I supposed you'd have to assume they thought
we were bluffing."
and Regier were obviously upset at the direction the Oilers
chose to take. I'm all for fairness, but this was a relatively
unique situation. Lowe looked at his remaining options and
decided it was time to act a little differently and go after
"I contacted Darcy [last night], out of respect for him, and
we weren't totally decided on whether we were going to go
ahead or not," Lowe said during a conference call. "He did
mention something to that effect [of matching an offer]. But,
we never talked numbers or term, or anything like that.
"We wanted to try to make a strong offer, as we did, an offer
that we felt would work for our organization. Fortunately, for
them, they felt the same way... They got the player."
Nevertheless, you can't expect the Sabres to be very happy
about the way they re-signed Vanek.
"We've always had an attitude here that we don't do these
things," Quinn said. "As it comes to the Edmonton Oilers, if
there's an opportunity for us to put an offer sheet on [one of
their players] at any time, as long as we're alive, we'll be
very comfortable in doing that. And they can expect it if it's
to our best interest."
Booyaa! (If only Oilers and Sabres were in the same
The bottom line is that this was something Lowe and the Oilers
had to do. It wasn't because they had to prove to Oilers fans
that the team was trying to improve, and it wasn't because
they wanted to tell the world that they mean business. This
was a move 20 other teams would love to have jumped at.
There's no need to kick Lowe where the sun don't shine -- even
thought the Sabres wouldn't mind. Bartlett acknowledged that
he spoke with several other GMs before the Oilers made their
pitch. Lowe was the only one with big enough cojones to follow
through with an offer sheet.
"Our intention is to try and make our team better before the
season starts, as it has been all along," said Lowe. "We hoped
the easiest way was to do it through the UFA market, and
unfortunately that didn't work out. We took a stab at Thomas
Vanek through the RFA market."
Lowe did not appear to appreciate the comments Quinn made
relating to the Sabres potentially going after some of the
Oilers' restricted free agents in the future.
"I think [that's] rather juvenile on their part," Lowe said.
"It's a business. Take the personal out of it. It was right
for the Oilers, and obviously it appears it's right for the
And he's exactly correct.
The National Hockey League is a business. Each franchise is
its own entity. The employees of every organization have a
responsibility to act accordingly and in the best interest of
felt acquiring someone of Vanek's talent would automatically
improve his hockey club. I'm certain there are 29 other GMs
out there that feel the exact same way. A team is better with
Vanek on its roster than it is without him. It's that simple.
The Oilers had a chance at signing him, they took it, and the
Sabres stood their ground and prevented the transaction from
Does this mean Lowe is done trying to improve his team? Heck
no! He will continue to explore trade possibilities and
there's a chance he'll pursue another restricted free agent.
Whatever he does has to make sense for the Oilers.
"It's not like we're just going to fire off a bunch of offer
sheets," Lowe said. "As Thomas Vanek is, a specific player, an
offensive type player, if we can acquire one of those in
whatever means possible, we'll do our best."
Regier acknowledged that there are other Group II free agents
around the league that teams could pursue.
The gloves are off, ladies and gentlemen. Restricted free
agents are no longer safe on their own teams. In the new NHL,
they appear to be fair game (as the official rules visibly
Lowe suspects that "you'll see more [RFAs getting to offer
sheets] in the coming years," and two players in particular
who are reportedly attracting a lot of interest are New Jersey
Devils center Zach Parise and Anaheim Ducks winger Dustin
Parise's agent, Neil Sheehy, would not comment on whether
teams have approached him about his client.
"Zach's situation will play out that way it'll play out,"
Sheehy told TFP.
Ducks GM Brian Burke, meanwhile, has indicated that he will
match any offer sheet for Penner, if he's presented with one.
With the Vanek mini-saga behind us, we should expect to see
more teams taking into consideration the possibility of going
after another club's RFAs. In a salary cap world, they're more
available than teams would like to admit.
In the "new NHL," the Flyers may have opened the doors with
their dinky little one-year offer to Kesler last season, but
it's the Oilers who are well ahead of anyone else in the
Beware, GMs. Your young talents are up for grabs.
David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period
Magazine and covers the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL for
TheFourthPeriod.com. He is also a contributing writer for