NHL offer sheets remain taboo despite tantalizing targets

William NylanderWilliam Nylander is still available. The Toronto Maple Leafs winger remains unsigned as he and the team seem confident they will reach an agreement before the preseason, but the lack of urgency is thanks to an unwritten rule in the NHL that essentially forbids teams from using offer sheets to acquire elite restricted free agents.

Offer sheets are not only a rarity in the NHL, they’re also most likely to be matched. The last time an NHL player signed an offer sheet was 2013, when Ryan O’Reilly signed a two-year, $10 million one that was matched by his team at the time, the Colorado Avalanche. Teams will match even if it puts them in a difficult salary cap position, such as the Nashville Predators with Shea Weber in 2012, the Chicago Blackhawks with Niklas Hjalmarsson in 2010, or the Buffalo Sabres with Thomas Vanek in 2007. In fact, the only player to change teams as a result of an offer sheet since the 2004 lockout was Dustin Penner, and that resulted in one general manager threatening to rent a barn and brawl with the GM who stole his player.

Every offseason contains at least a handful of promising players coming off entry-level deals (meaning they aren’t eligible for arbitration), and holding out for a long-term second contract that will carry them to unrestricted free agency. This offseason is no different, with Nylander, Sam Reinhart of the Buffalo Sabres, and a host of other intriguing talent like 20-goal scorer Ondrej Kase or defensive prospects Noah Hanifin, Shea Theodore, and Darnell Nurse. The Sabres would have difficulty matching an offer sheet with a cap hit higher than $6 million on Reinhart, who was the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, while Toronto’s situation with Nylander is complicated by the looming restricted free agency of fellow wunderkinds Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.

NHL teams could stand to take a look at the NBA, where offer sheets are more common and not at all frowned upon. The Sacramento Kings recently signed Zach LaVine to a hefty four-year offer sheet only to see the Chicago Bulls match it within their 48-hour window. But unlike the NHL, NBA rules to not force teams to give up draft picks if their offer sheet is successful. If the annual value of the offer sheet is high enough, it could be worth multiple first-round picks, which puts a cap on how much teams would be comfortable offering - if they were comfortable with offering anything at all.