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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 did it.

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 matched it.

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...

 

Failing 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 nothing wrong.

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.

Thomas VanekClearly, 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 began negotiating.

"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."

Oilers GM Kevin Lowe (left) and Sabres GM Darcy Regier (right)Quinn 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 an RFA.

"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 Conference.)

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 Sabres."

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 their team.

Thomas VanekLowe 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 taking place.

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 point to).

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 Penner.

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 offer-sheet game.

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 NBCSports.com.
 

 

 

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