RFA’s Waiting… and Wondering?

Last month, the NHL Players’ Association made an important decision concerning the collective bargaining agreement: the contract has been extended through the 2011-12 season, the seventh and final season of the CBA.

Meanwhile, two of the most talented young players in the league remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty must continue to wait for a new deal.

GMs seem to be taking their sweet time, either unwilling or uninterested to make an offer of their own, despite having a legal right to do so. Toronto GM Brian Burke once commented, following the aftermath of Dustin Penner’s offer sheet in 2007, that he had “no problem with offer sheets (as) they are part of the CBA.” His only issue revolved around the inflated salary for a player, in this case for a second time in a season. In the cases of Stamkos and Doughty, their financial demands appeared to be around $7 million per season. But is anyone else besides Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Kings GM Dean Lombardi willing to make an offer these top-tier players can’t refuse?

It seems there have been no serious propositions made to Stamkos since he has become a restricted free agent. Rumors say the Philadelphia Flyers spoke with the forward before they started reassembling their own roster and decided to not to sign Stamkos to an offer sheet. Other teams have cap room and a need for a young offensive talent, but neither the New York Islanders nor the Toronto Maple Leafs have expressed interest in making Stamkos an offer.

Even the New York Rangers, who at one point had all sorts of cap space, could have made an offer to a much younger player who outscored the Rangers’ first choice, 31-year old Brad Richards, by 17 goals and 14 points during the last season. According to the CBA, any team with enough cap space and a first round pick in the next four Entry drafts could sign Stamkos to an offer sheet, but it’s certainly starting to look like Stamkos will re-sign with the Lightning during the summer.

As for Doughty, the chances of him getting picked up by another team with an offer sheet are starting to look slim. Even though the process of signing Doughty won’t be a quick one, the Los Angeles Times’ Fabulous Forum found out from GM Lombardi that “the Kings would match any offer sheet Doughty might sign with another team. It’s unlikely any team would make an offer of a magnitude that would entice Doughty away, because paying him that much money would leave that team little room to pay the support players necessary to build a winner.”

The Kings’ highest-paid player is center Anze Kopitar, who will soon begin the third year of a seven-year, $47.6-million contract that has an annual salary cap hit of $6.8 million and runs through the 2015-16 season. Doughty, who was a Norris trophy candidate in 2010 and is ranked as one of the top five defensemen in the NHL for the next decade at least, could use Kopitar’s numbers as a guideline for his own. The 21-year old Canadian tallied 59 points in the 2009-10 season and 40 in the last.

Since 1998, when former Detroit Red Wings star Sergei Fedorov received a six-year, $38-million offer from the Carolina Hurricanes, there have only been six offer sheets in the NHL (Ryan Kesler in 2006, Tomas Vanek and Dustin Penner in 2007, David Backes and Steve Bernier in 2008 and Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2010). Furthermore, offer sheets rarely come into play since they hardly ever result in players changing teams. In addition, GMs seem to worry that the team on the other side of the deal would then make a bid for their restricted free agents and therefore create bad blood.

If they are however unsigned prior to camp opening in September, a trade could be a viable option. Although it should be mentioned deals featuring top players sometimes take longer, as was seen last season when Ducks right winger Bobby Ryan didn’t sign until mid-September.

The consensus around the league seems to be that Tampa Bay and Los Angeles would match any offer made to Stamkos and Doughty. The Lightning and the Kings will then be the ones making Stamkos and Doughty an offer they can’t refuse…

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