By HOWARD BERGER
LOS ANGELES (July 13) – If you ask a general manager in the National Hockey League about the puzzle involving offer sheets, chances are you’ll be given a reply similar to that issued by Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who acknowledged, in the past week, that offer sheets are “a part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement” but an option his club had no interest in pursuing.
What remains a total mystery is why Burke and his fellow GMs refuse to exercise a strategic element of the CBA that has the potential – in certain cases – to turn around an entire franchise. Other than negotiating a trade, an offer sheet is the only vehicle that allows for the acquisition of players in the most elite division – proven super-stars with the bulk of their careers ahead of them. The largest percentage of such players are restricted, or Group II, free agents. Every summer, it seems, a particular player on the fringe of this category is available as an unrestricted, or Group III, free agent: examples in the past two years being Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Richards. Most Group III’s, however, are a bit older; fall well beneath the “franchise” tag, and are acquired to add depth in a particular area.
Not every team is in position to take an enormous leap with a restricted free agent, and only a few RFA’s have the ability to provide such a boost. One such example – glaring to many observers – has generated abundant chatter among fans of the Maple Leafs the past three weeks. Though far-fetched in the realm of speculation, the essence of this chatter holds considerable logic. I count myself among those who subscribe to the theory that the Maple Leafs – given a resumption of goaltending stability – are a premium forward away from not only ending their six-season playoff drought, but developing into a force. A flawless example of such a player is Steven Stamkos – the multi-talented centre of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who remains a restricted free agent nearly two weeks after the expiration of his contract.
Since noon Eastern Time on July 1st, all 29 of Tampa Bay’s NHL rivals have been at liberty to tender Stamkos an offer sheet; we’re talking, here, about a player that has scored 96 goals in the past two seasons while playing every game for the Lightning. Not one opponent has stepped forward. Similarly approachable is young defense phenom Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, whose athletic prominence in this city elicits daily newspaper updates. Doughty could even be more valuable than Stamkos, given the sporadic availability of front-line defensemen. Yet neither player has generated a sniff from around the league.
The reason for this is well-documented, though shrouded, still, in a veil of secrecy.
“The whole offer-sheet thing is stupid; I have no idea why time was spent on it in the last few rounds of CBA negotiation,” said a general manager I spoke with before coming out here on Tuesday. “Any proposal to a front-line player is going to be matched by his existing team. You hear all this talk about collusion, but it doesn’t wash. Collective thinking may have been a factor in the pre-salary cap era, but escalating the pay structure in the current NHL has obvious limits. I think managers stay away from tendering offer sheets because they know it’s a waste of time and energy. All it does is make more work for the existing team.”
As a testament to this GM’s theory, Tampa Bay manager Steve Yzerman has confirmed, on a number of occasions, his club will match any free agent overture to Stamkos. The same almost certainly applies to Dean Lombardi here in Los Angeles, pertaining to Doughty. It’s the reason neither man was particularly concerned about locking up his star player before July 1st – there isn’t likely a softer “deadline” in the business of professional sport.
That said, it is neither illogical nor gratuitous to wonder why the offer sheet trend isn’t challenged on occasion. Surely, the temptation must exist among numerous teams. No one, for example, can adequately convince me that Burke hasn’t thought long and hard about every possible scenario and loophole involving Stamkos. There isn’t a conservative marker in Burke’s DNA; he has the available cap room, and he worries about losing draft picks the way you and I fret over catching a cold… it’s a nuisance, but nothing more.
None of us have to tell double-B what Stamkos could mean to the Blue & White. Add his soft hands; wicked shot, and keen eye for the net to a centre-ice contingent of Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski, Matthew Lombardi (if healthy) and Tyler Bozak – with huge potential in lanky Joe Colborne – and the Leafs’ middle spot is deep; mostly young, and talented.
Burke has adroitly sculpted his defense corps – with goaltending, the foundation of any good team. There is size and youth in Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Cody Franson; puck-moving savvy in Carl Gunnarsson and John-Michael Liles; leadership and (at times) a bomb from the point in Dion Phaneuf; highly-touted potential in Jake Gardiner. Providing Reimer wasn’t a flash in the pan, and given reasonable health, the Leafs could be among the most improved clubs in the NHL from start to finish next season.
Imagine what the team would look like with the kid from Unionville wearing No. 91 on opening night against Montreal. And, tell me he wouldn’t be stoked to play in his home town.
Is there a way for Burke to get this done? Don’t you suspect the Leaf boss – with his proactive nature and “I don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks” philosophy – is less worried than others about bucking a trend, or “annoying” a fellow GM? Yzerman wouldn’t be insisting he’ll match any offer sheet if he weren’t sincere; should Stamkos re-sign in Tampa, the package won’t be acutely different than a rival submission. So, Burke is probably among the majority that believes a free agency stab is futile.
But, what about another ballsy trade? The notion of parting with Schenn is likely abhorrent to most Leaf fans – as it is to Burke – but with Aulie and Franson in the fold, baiting Yzerman with a package that features big Luke wouldn’t be at all unreasonable… especially if the Lightning boss is worried about settling with his dynamic scorer. It would take more than just Schenn to fetch Stamkos and that’s where the renowned Burke creativity and perseverance would come into play. Unless Yzerman has determined he’ll retain Stamkos under any circumstance, such an effort would be entirely worthwhile.
If successful, it would also put the Leafs into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
SCENES FROM A CALIFORNIA TRIP: ACT I
I am fortunate to spend more than five weeks each summer with my family here in Los Angeles, at the home of my in-laws: Peter and Maxine Straus. They live in Calabasas, in the southern tier of the San Fernando Valley, about 30 miles northwest of downtown L.A. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, this area is close enough to the Pacific Ocean and far enough from the city to evade the smog that blankets Los Angeles – particularly in the summer-time. This is evident in the photos below.
I’VE BEEN COMING OUT HERE FOR 21 YEARS AND THE SPECTACULAR VIEW FROM THE BACK-YARD OF MY IN-LAWS’ HOUSE NEVER GROWS OLD.
EVERYTHING SEEMS MORE VIVID HERE IN CALIFORNIA: THE SKY IS A DEEPER BLUE; THE FOLIAGE A DEEPER GREEN.
WENT TO A SPORTS COLLECTOR’S STORE NEARBY TODAY AND “STOLE” A 1980s LOS ANGELES KINGS JERSEY FOR $40. NO, HOCKEY DOESN’T SELL BIG OUT HERE.
MY HOME AWAY FROM HOME UNTIL AUG. 20, WITH AN ALMOST-FULL MOON IN THE SKY.
THE ORANGE-PINK AFTERMATH OF A SOUTHERN-CALIFORNIA SUN-SET IS AWESOME.
WHAT A SIGHT AS THE SUN’S GLOW BATHES THE HORIZON.
TELEPHOTO LENS CAPTURES PALM TREE AGAINST ORANGE SKY AFTER SUN-SET.
NEARLY A FULL MOON OVER THE NIGHT SKY OF LOS ANGELES.