The Big “What If”: The Vanek Offer Sheet

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July 6th, 2007

 BUFFALO, NEW YORK

What had been a tough week for Buffalo Sabres fans had just gotten worse.

The Sabres, having just come off of a run to the Eastern Conference Final, had already lost some key players in free agency. Daniel Briere, coming off of a career-high 95-point season (as well as leading the team in the playoffs with 15 points), was off to Philadelphia. Chris Drury, 3rd on the team that year with 69 points, was signed by the New York Rangers, joining former New Jersey centreman Scott Gomez to form a formidable duo down the middle of the ice. It wasn’t just enough that the Sabres were losing their two co-captains in Briere and Drury. In losing the two, the Sabres were indirectly bolstering an in-state rival, as well as a Philadelphia team that was always looking to be competitive. Buffalo was simply lost in the shuffle, a team that couldn’t keep up in the ever-growing spending race.

But the biggest blow would come thanks to a Western Conference team, the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers, expected to be a competitive team following a Stanley Cup Final appearance, were instead left to sell at the trade deadline. The biggest deal made for the Oilers that year was the shipping of Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders; Smyth was an Edmonton draftee, and had become a local hero thanks to his gritty play and leadership, and his departure was marked by a teary-eyed press conference. Having lost Smyth, the Oilers needed a top-line winger – the younger, the better. Their focus was turned to Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek, whose contract had expired, just as the contracts of Briere and Drury did.

The case of Thomas Vanek, however, was a bit different from the other two free agents. Whereas Daniel and Chris were unrestricted free agents (or UFAs), Vanek was a restricted free agent (RFA). Being a restricted free agent required a certain set of conditions. The major condition was based on age and NHL experience; anyone who was under 27 years of age, or had less than 7 years of NHL experience was eligible for a qualifying offer. If a qualifying offer was tendered, the player became an RFA, and despite his contract expiring, the team retained the player’s rights. Having been tendered a qualifying offer, Vanek’s rights were still held by Buffalo, but this did not preclude him from negotiating with other NHL teams if he so chose. The Oilers, wanting badly to get a young scoring winger, agreed to an offer sheet with Vanek – a contract of 7 years, paying $50 million. Though this totaled at just over $7 million a year, the Average Annual Value (AAV) of the deal would be $10 million, as the AAV of an offer sheet is calculated by dividing the salary by 5, or the length of the contract (whichever is lower).

The first order of business following an offer sheet is for the team that owns the player’s rights to either match the offer, or accept compensation for losing their player. They have seven days to make their decision. If they match, they take on the contract that their player had agreed to with the other team. If not, then they are given a compensatory package of assets in exchange. In the earliest days of restricted free agency, “compensation” could include anything from draft picks, to cash, to players (an infamous example being the Brendan Shanahan offer sheet in 1991 which saw the New Jersey Devils being awarded Scott Stevens). Ever since the 2004-05 lockout, a standard was agreed upon, which would see the team that lost their RFA being awarded a set of draft picks based on the annual value of the new contract.

At an AAV of $10M, the Vanek offer sheet, if not matched, the Sabres would be given the maximum compensation: four 1st-Round Draft Picks from Edmonton, one for each of the next four seasons. (I could not find the salary rules for 2007, but the maximum compensation value for the following year was triggered for contracts above $6.5 million p/a; this would likely mean that Vanek’s contract was well within the range required for the maximum package.) The four picks would certainly be tempting to any team, but for a club that had already lost two key forwards, it may not have been enough. Vanek was the team’s leading goal-scorer in 2006-07 with 43 goals, and his +47 total led the entire NHL. Having only turned 23 a few months prior, he was shaping up to be someone who could be relied upon as a first-line forward for years to come.

At the end of the day, the pressure that had been placed on the Sabres was too much. They had already lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and giving up Vanek as well meant that they would have lost all three of their top scorers from the previous year. The Sabres matched the offer sheet, and committed to the Austrian winger for seven years. But it raises the question of what would have happened if Buffalo decided to let go of Vanek, and begin a rebuilding phase.

 

WHAT IF THE SABRES NEVER MATCHED THE THOMAS VANEK OFFER SHEET?

 

WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: As has been mentioned, the Sabres were in a bind. Having already lost two key pieces, it would very well be a disaster if Buffalo were to lose out on Thomas Vanek as well. As a young player, and the team’s leading goal-scorer, Vanek was certainly of high value, and re-signing him would be of the utmost importance. But the major X-factor in all of the Sabres’ decisions in the decade was the owner, Tom Golisano. Golisano was always seen as someone who made decisions based on what would be best for business, sometimes to the disappointment of long-time fans. With two free-agent forwards already out of reach, it could be entirely plausible that Golisano could inform GM Darcy Regier that Vanek must be let go, as well.

The day goes on, and after hours of deliberating in Buffalo, the front office staff does the cost-benefit analysis, and decides that matching the offer is not in the club’s best financial interest. The league are informed of the decision, and the media get the info soon afterward. Thomas Vanek is an Edmonton Oiler.


 

FROM EDMONTON’S PERSPECTIVE

Kevin Lowe made a hell of a gamble, but in the end, he landed his target in Thomas Vanek. The deal doesn’t come without a bit of hostility from the Buffalo front office, but the rules were followed. In making this move, the Oilers have now played their hand; with their 1st-Round Picks in the next four years going to the Sabres, Edmonton may have no choice but to make a run for the playoffs. Vanek comes in as a potential cornerstone of the Oilers’ attack, having just notched a 43-goal season at only 23 years of age. He is immediately pencilled into the first line, expected to click with Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky. Not only is he young and talented, he’s under contract for seven years, giving the team a major piece to build around. (Note: Because the Oilers sign Vanek in this timeline, they don’t make the Dustin Penner signing. Penner remains with the Anaheim Ducks.)

Given the pressure of having to help a former marquee team to the playoffs, Vanek starts slow in his first year with the Oilers, but soon finds his stride. He plays all 82 games, scoring 36 goals, and racking up 64 total points. It’s not quite “franchise player” numbers, but it’s good enough for second on the team behind Ales Hemsky, who scored 71 points. With Vanek instead of Penner, Edmonton’s fortunes improve, if only barely. The Oilers finish the 2007-08 season with 91 points, tying them with Nashville for the last spot; Edmonton, however, grabs the spot by virtue of regulation and overtime wins. Their prize for making it to the playoffs is the Detroit Red Wings, who finished 1st in the NHL. The Wings set the Oilers ablaze, scoring 29 goals in 5 games in a 4-1 series win. It’s not quite the run that Edmonton fans were hoping for, but it’s certainly a good start.

The 2008 Entry Draft comes with several changes in the timeline. Firstly, because of their position in the standings, Edmonton’s spot in the order is now 15th. The first of four picks given up for Vanek belongs to the Sabres, who, oddly enough, also ended up acquiring it in the OTL through a series of trades. The Sabres hold on to the pick, using it on Swedish defender Erik Karlsson. Because they never made the Penner signing, the Oilers hold on to their 2nd and 3rd-Round Picks, using them on Justin Schultz and Kirill Petrov, respectively. The 22nd Overall pick, having been acquired from the Ducks in the Chris Pronger trade, is completely unaffected, and the Oilers use it to select Jordan Eberle.

Having gotten used to Edmonton’s system, Thomas Vanek finds the 2008-09 season somewhat easier. In 78 games, he manages 41 goals, his second time breaking the 40 mark in the NHL. Edmonton’s defensive problem from the last season, however, is left unrepaired, despite excellent goaltending from the 39-year-old Dwayne Roloson (63 games, 2.77 goals against average, .915 save percentage). The Oilers make it a fight for the last spot once again, but just lose out on 8th in the West to the Anaheim Ducks. Their 1st-Round Pick ends up in the 13th spot, and the Sabres use it to pick Zack Kassian, a bruising winger from the OHL’s Peterborough Petes.

The time has come to shake things up in Edmonton. Having failed to bring the team to the playoffs, Craig MacTavish is let go as head coach, to be replaced by the legendary Pat Quinn, fresh off of winning the 2009 World Junior Championship with Canada. Jeff Deslauriers is given the starting job in net, as the management team deems him ready for regular NHL play. And Nikolai Khabibulin, a former Stanley Cup winner, is brought in to be the insurance policy in case Deslauriers proves to be inadequate as the #1 goalie. Having missed out on the playoffs in his first season, General Manager Steve Tambellini feels that the core is ready to make a good run this time around. Tambellini has brought in the likes of Gilbert Brule and Patrick O’Sullivan, both under 25 years of age at the time, while home-grown youngsters such as Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano are quickly making themselves NHL fixtures.

Unfortunately, things start off bad for the Oilers, and only get worse. Ales Hemsky, having started the season on a point-a-game pace, injures his shoulder early on in the campaign, and needs season-ending surgery. But even having Hemsky around for the entire season wouldn’t change the fact that Pat Quinn, once a master behind the bench, seems completely unsuited to coach in the modern era of hockey. His bizarre line mixing, and his reliance on a slow, crushing style of play leave the Oilers chasing most of their games. Even Thomas Vanek struggles a bit, managing only 57 points in 82 games. The Oilers are truly at the bottom of the barrel in the 2009-10 season, finishing dead last with only 62 points. And just to add a poison cherry on top, they win the draft lottery with a pick that now belongs to Buffalo. The Sabres use the pick on Taylor Hall, looking to fill the gap that Vanek left after signing with Edmonton.

Now, having lost out on a 1st-Overall Pick, the Oilers are seeing the writing on the wall. The time to rebuild has come, but they still will lose one more draft pick. Nonetheless, Edmonton moves on, with Tom Renney now in as head coach. Gone is Jeff Deslauriers after a poor training camp, with Khabibulin in as starter. Devan Dubnyk is now in as back-up, with Martin Gerber getting the occasional game here and there. Dubnyk fares well in his games, but Khabibulin proves to be utterly awful (47 games, .890 SV%), leaving the Oilers looking up at the rest of the NHL once again. Now desperately needing a 1st-Round Pick, the team trades Ales Hemsky to the Los Angeles Kings for Colton Teubert, a 1st-Rounder in 2011 (used on Oscar Klefbom), and a 3rd-Rounder in 2013 (used on Daniil Zharkov). The closest thing to consolation Oilers fans have this year is that Vanek has a bounce-back season, manaing 73 points in 80 games. It is all for naught, however, as the Oilers finish last, with their natural pick winning the lottery once again. The Sabres use the pick on centreman Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a strong two-way player that projects to be a #1 at the NHL level.

The 2011-12 season is one of absolute acrimony off the ice, as owner Daryl Katz gets into a lengthy battle with the city of Edmonton over a new arena for the club. At one point, Katz starts to negotiate with the city of Seattle, looking to possibly relocate the team. The goodwill that had been lost over the last few years would dwindle even further, as Oilers fans began to boycott the organization. A team that had once drawn sell-out crowds in their leanest years was now having days when the stadium was only 80% full, almost unthinkable from a Western Canadian team. The on-ice play didn’t help much either; with two 1st-Overall picks given up to Buffalo, and former sniper Ales Hemsky gone, the Oilers were dire once again. If there was a silver lining, they didn’t finish last, but ended up a single point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets. A further silver lining happens in the Draft Lottery, as Edmonton wins the #1 Pick ahead of the Jackets, using it on Draft Day to select Nail Yakupov from the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.

As for the off-ice battling, it comes to a head in October of 2012. After intense negotiations spanning a whole year, a deal is finally reached that sees a new arena built in Edmonton. The deal is heavily tilted in favour of the city, and what was at one point a serious threat by Daryl Katz to relocate the team is now revealed as a bluff. Some say that as an Edmonton native, Katz wouldn’t dare move his hometown team. Some say that he was less concerned about the success of the team than he was about hanging out with the Oilers’ stars from the 80s – the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, and so on. But whatever his true reasoning was, the Oilers were now secure in Edmonton. Katz pens a letter to the fans attempting to soothe tensions that have developed over the past year, but not everybody buys it; under Katz, the team has gone from Stanley Cup contender to the bottom of the league, and many fans aren’t happy.

With the arena situation settled, and the 2012 lockout eventually ended, the time has come for a shortened 2013 season, with Ralph Krueger now in charge behind the bench. Despite clear signs of progress, the team on the ice is still below par. Thomas Vanek is hardly to blame, though, racking up 41 points in 38 games during the shortened season to lead the team. The duo of Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin proves surprisingly effective in the barrage that they receive (.920 and .923 SV%, respectively), but the flood of shots game after game is far too much for the team to deal with. The Oilers finish second-last in the West once again, ahead of only the Colorado Avalanche. Steve Tambellini is dismissed as GM, replaced by former head coach Craig MacTavish. Despite a clear need for defense, the Oilers use their 3rd-Overall selection on forward Jonathan Drouin, believing that he will be a cornerstone of the team in the future.

2013, to say the least, does NOT get off to a good start. The pain starts before the 2013 lockout-shortened season comes to an end, as Craig MacTavish is introduced as General Manager in a press conference that becomes infamous thanks to the tirade of team President Kevin Lowe. In the off-season, Ralph Krueger is let go despite fans believing that he was making some progress in developing the young guys. In his place is Dallas Eakins, formerly of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies – he too, is known at the time for his work with young players. Meanwhile, Thomas Vanek, the man believed to be their centrepiece player when he was signed to an offer sheet, is coming up on the last year on his contract. With the team and his agent far apart in negotiations, the Austrian is traded to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson, as well as 1st and 2nd-Round Picks in the 2015 Entry Draft.

In his first year as head coach, Eakins struggles to deal with the younger players on the Edmonton squad. Nail Yakupov takes a huge step back, managing only 24 points in 63 games. Devan Dubnyk also plays horribly, and is eventually traded to Minnesota for Matt Hendricks. His replacement, Ben Scrivens (acquired in a trade from Los Angeles), does well to manage a .916 SV%, but is just too overwhelmed by the poor team in front of him. Matt Moulson, acquired from the Islanders in the Vanek trade, is eventually shipped out to Minnesota alongside Will Acton for Torrey Mitchell and two 2nd-Round Picks in 2014 and 2016. All in all, the Oilers are completely lost. They are once again in last place in the entire league, and to make matters worse, they fail to win the Draft Lottery. They use their 2nd-Overall Pick on Sam Reinhart, a forward from the Kootenay Ice. The 2nd-Rounder they got from Minnesota (via Winnipeg) is used on goalie Vitek Vanecek.

With the team clearly nowhere near a playoff spot, things look bleak for the 2014-15 season, as the Oilers shape up to be a bottom-feeder once again. If there is something to look forward to this year, it’s the prospect of potentially getting to select Connor McDavid in the next Draft. McDavid is one of the few to get “Exceptional Player” status in the junior leagues, allowing him to join the OHL a year early. In his short junior career, McDavid is showing the kind of talent that is getting him comparisons to Sidney Crosby, or possibly even a former Edmonton centreman by the name of Wayne Gretzky. As expected, the Oilers are terrible, to the point where Dallas Eakins is let go in December. In the end, Edmonton finishes dead last in the NHL with 54 points, and the best chance to win the 1st-Overall Pick in the Draft Lottery.

Craig MacTavish travels to the Rogers Sportsnet studio in Toronto, along with several other General Managers, as they take part in the Draft Lottery presentation. The draw is conducted in secret by commissioner Gary Bettman, though it was recorded and would eventually be made available for the public to view. After the draw, deputy commissioner Bill Daly appears live on TV to announce the results. The first few teams, the ones that finished closest to playoff spots, stay as is, but eventually, the winner is revealed.

Bill: And we have a winner! The 1st-Overall Pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On the faces of both Connor McDavid and Leafs’ President Brendan Shanahan, there are reserved smiles, hiding unspeakable joy. The Richmond Hill-born McDavid is playing for his local NHL team only an hour or so away from his birthplace. The Leafs have a true hometown superstar, one of a quality that not even team legends like Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, or Mats Sundin could match. As for Edmonton, the news is a shot to the gut for Craig MacTavish, who does little to hide his disappointment. The Draft Lottery appearance would be, effectively, his last order of business as Edmonton General Manager. A few days later, he was sacked, in favour of former Boston GM Peter Chiarelli. Chiarelli uses the 2nd-Overall Pick in 2015 to select Jack Eichel out of Boston University. Though incredibly talented, and likely to be a star in the league, Eichel is not talked about as a “generational talent” the way McDavid is. The draft is a missed opportunity for the Oilers, even with Jack on board.

With Chiarelli in as General Manager, and Todd McLellan in as head coach, the understanding is that this year is a write-off as Edmonton prepares to compete in a couple years’ time. The development of Eichel as their future #1 centreman is the top priority, and early on, he shows some solid promise. Unfortunately, that promise is cut short halfway through the season, as Eichel suffers an injury that keeps him out for a couple of months. He finishes with 45 games played, and only 31 points to show for it. Edmonton is once again stuck in the basement, finishing with 56 points, far worse than any other team. If it is any consolation, their horrible finish does lead to Edmonton winning the 2016 Draft Lottery; they use the pick on another American centreman, Auston Matthews. With more depth down the centre of the ice, the Oilers trade Sam Reinhart to New Jersey, getting Adam Larsson in return.

Having the duo of Eichel and Matthews certainly helps make the Oilers a more reasonable pick for a playoff spot, as their offense looks to be well set for the future, both short-term and long-term. On the wing, however, they have a bit of a problem. Despite Jonathan Drouin’s talent, he only played 21 games in the 2015-16 season due to a dispute over playing time. He would be suspended by the team for a long period of time, and finished the season with only 21 games played. Though he would play the 2016-17 season with the Oilers, it was clear that there was a disconnect between player and management. With the potential for a Drouin trade looming, the Oilers sign free agent Milan Lucic to give them a bit of top-six support. Lucic was familiar to Chiarelli, having won a Stanley Cup in Boston in 2011, and could give a bit of physical support on a line with either Eichel or Matthews.

The strategy of using the high-powered offense to win games proves to be effective. Eichel manages a full slate of 82 games, racking up 75 points. Auston Matthews has a superb rookie year, scoring 40 goals and winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. Second-year goalie Cam Talbot proves to be solid in the face of many a barrage, picking up 42 wins and a .919 SV%. All in all, the Oilers finish with 98 points, putting them in 3rd in the Pacific Division. For the first time in eight years, Edmonton is in the playoffs. They are put up against San Jose in the first round; the offense that was so dangerous in the regular season disappears, but Talbot is astoundingly good in goal, as Edmonton wins the series in 6 games. Edmonton is now faced with the Anaheim Ducks, and the 1-2 punch of Eichel and Matthews proves deadly. Anaheim is left scrambling to deal with an elite forward on the ice almost three-quarters of the time, and the Oilers take a surprising series win in 5.

Their reward for going this far is the Nashville Predators, a well-balanced team with a plethora of blue-line threats. The Preds’ swift-skating D-men prove to be a handful, and keep games close. But Cam Talbot continues to come up big, and the Eichel-Matthews duo is once again on fire. The series eventually goes to a seventh game, and it is here that the Cinderella run comes to an end – but not without a fight. In the third period, Ryan Johansen picks up a power-play goal to make it 2-1, proving to be the winning goal. It was a valiant effort to get to the Western Conference Final, but the ride stops there.

Though the Oilers missed out on a Stanley Cup Final appearance, there is hope again in Edmonton, for the first time in a long while. Towards the end of the regular season, Rogers Place, the arena that had been built that year, began to host frequent sell-out crowds. GM Chiarelli and coach McLellan looked at what they could do to bolster their team further, and concluded that the defense needed to be improved. Jonathan Drouin was shipped off to Montreal, along with a conditional 6th-Round Pick in 2018, for defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev and a 2nd-Round Pick in next year’s Entry Draft. Jordan Eberle, scapegoated for his terrible post-season play (3 points in 16 games), is traded to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome. The 1st-Round Pick that they hold in the 2017 Draft is used on blue-liner Henri Jokiharju out of the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL.

Despite all of the hope and hype, the 2017-18 season sees an unfortunate return to the norm for the Oilers. Sergachev certainly does work out, but Strome proves to be an awful fit with both Eichel AND Matthews – a fact made even worse by the fact that Jordan Eberle puts up almost 60 points in New York. The special teams prove to be utterly dreadful; the power play is ranked last in the league at 13.8%, while the penalty kill isn’t much better at 25th in the league (and dead last at home). The regression of the likes of Strome, Milan Lucic, and Cam Talbot helps drag the Oilers down to last place in the entire league with only 68 points, putting the team in decent position to select Swedish D-man Rasmus Dahlin in the 2018 Draft.

The Oilers Today: For the first time in a while, there is some promise, but there is also a bit of caution thrown in for good measure. The 2017 playoff run showed what the Oilers can do at their very best, but the following year showed that they have to be at their very best just to have a shot at making the post-season. The duo of Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews draw some comparisons to the iconic Pittsburgh tandem of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; while neither of the Americans are quite as good as Crosby was and is, they still give the Oilers a chance to win a lot of games, provided their special teams don’t fail them. Edmonton also has some decent talent on the blue line, with the likes of Adam Larsson, Mikhail Sergachev, and Oscar Klefbom all looking to be regulars for a while, but once again, the problem lies not in talent, but in coaching.

For a time, however, it was much, much worse. The gamble to sign Thomas Vanek from restricted free agency was certainly ballsy, but it ended up setting the Oilers much further back than in the original timeline (OTL). Yes, Vanek certainly performed well in an Edmonton uniform. But he couldn’t do it on his own, and he ended up being merely a passenger in a sinking ship. The feeling among Oiler fans about Vanek is mixed; some hate him for the fact that his signing led to the Oilers missing out on prime prospects, while others argue that he is not to blame for the management group’s poor decisions, and tried hard to make the team better while he was wearing an Edmonton sweater.

The sum total of the prospects given up by the Oilers in exchange for Vanek ended up being far more than even the most pessimistic of Edmonton fans could have predicted. Their 2008 pick was used on blue-liner Erik Karlsson, who would go on to become arguably the best defenseman of the modern era. The 2009 pick was used to select Zack Kassian – a man with considerable promise, but powerful demons off the ice. (This one arguably didn’t matter as much, as Kassian is now wearing Edmonton colours today, having kicked his addictions.) But things would become even worse for Oiler supporters in the next two drafts, which saw Buffalo select Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with #1 Picks. All in all, Edmonton missed out on an elite sniper, a solid two-way centreman, and, most importantly, a franchise blue-liner. And the one time they DID get a 1st-Overall Pick, it was used on Nail Yakupov – now heralded as one of the biggest busts in NHL history. Thankfully for Edmonton, Auston Matthews doesn’t seem to be following in Yakupov’s footsteps just yet.

The Oilers fan base, and arguably the city of Edmonton as a whole, went through a scare in the early part of the decade with the bickering between the city and Oilers owner Daryl Katz. With no good talent on the ice, no hope for the future, and an owner threatening to relocate a once-storied franchise, it seemed as if the Edmonton Oilers were destined to die. But Katz thought better of moving the club, instead negotiating a deal that clearly favoured the city, rather than his own bottom line. He is by no means poor, but he never would have had the leverage in this timeline that he did in the OTL with a promising young team. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think Katz himself would move the team even if negotiations did go completely south. The threat of moving a franchise is one that has been used all across the North American sports world as a negotiating tactic, but only once has an NHL team moved since the 2004-05 lockout.)


 

FROM BUFFALO’S PERSPECTIVE

Immediately after the announcement that the offer sheet will not be matched, there is a torrent of outrage in Buffalo. Tom Golisano, a man who is already viewed as someone who doesn’t want to spend money on the team, has let a highly-valued winger go for a bunch of draft picks. Within the next week, season ticket holders begin to cancel their deposits, and fans across the city are communicating to whatever medium is available – be it a newspaper, radio station, or TV channel – that they will start following teams such as the Rangers or Islanders. Some stick around, believing that the team will be set for a while with the duo of Derek Roy and Jason Pominville ready to break out. As the season starts, however, it becomes clear that the anger from Sabres supporters will not cease. Amazingly, the home opener against the New York Islanders sees several seats available right up to face-off.

The season goes on, and it turns out to be just as bad as the nay-sayers expected. Sure, Roy and Pominville have breakout seasons, managing 81 and 80 points respectively, but the team around them just can’t keep up. Nobody else on the Sabres manages above 50 points, and the team finds themselves well out of a playoff spot by the point of the trade deadline. With Brian Campbell headed for free agency very soon, he is traded to San Jose for Steve Bernier and a 1st-Round Pick in the 2008 Draft. Giving up on Campbell is seen as another sign of Golisano’s penny-pinching, and the late part of the season sees the HSBC Arena less than 80% full. In the end, the Sabres finish in 12th in the East, with only 82 points.

At the 2008 Draft, Buffalo has three 1st-Round Picks to work with. Their natural pick is 7th in the order, which they use on American forward Colin Wilson. The Edmonton pick is at #15, but before Darcy Regier makes his selection, he is given a trade offer from Ottawa: the Sens get the 15th pick in exchange for the 16th and a 3rd-Round selection in 2009. The Sabres’ draft table debates the deal, but Darcy Regier has the final say. Not wanting to benefit a division rival, Regier says no to the trade, and instead uses the 15th pick on Erik Karlsson, a highly-touted blue-liner from Frolunda in the Swedish Elitserien. The last of the 1st-Rounders is at #26, which they got in the Campbell trade. They use the pick on Medicine Hat Tigers winger Tyler Ennis.

The rebuild has begun. Despite now having to build a new team for the future, GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff are retained, as the owner shows loyalty to the duo that had led the team to a Stanley Cup Final in 1999. As expected, the Sabres are a step or two behind the rest of the Conference, and finish exactly where they ended up last year, in 12th in the East with 82 points. Though Ryan Miller had a solid season in goal (59 games, .918 SV%), the regression of Derek Roy and Jason Pominville didn’t help matters. Tim Connolly wasn’t too bad, putting up a point a game, but missed a good chunk of the season with injuries. In the end, Buffalo would hold the 8th and 13th picks in the 2009 Entry Draft, using them on wingers Scott Glennie and Zack Kassian, respectively.

2009-10 was truly the new beginning for the Sabres, as 2008 draftees Colin Wilson and Erik Karlsson began to get regular playing time with the NHL squad. Tyler Ennis, too, sees ten games, and impresses in his short stint. But the true star of the year was Ryan Miller; given almost nothing in front of him, Miller manages to single-handedly drag the team to respectability with a monster season. He wins 38 games, and puts up a sparkling .929 SV%, second in the league among starters. His Vezina-winning season proves to be enough to make the Sabres a playoff team, 6th in the East with 89 points. In the first round, they face off against the Northeast-winning Ottawa Senators. The series goes seven games, and it becomes apparent that despite Miller being excellent in goal, the Sabres’ lack of scoring would be the deciding factor. Every game is close, but in the end, the Sens move on. It’s certainly a sign of good things to come for Buffalo, who have at least begun to repair some of the damage created by the 2007 off-season.

The good news, however, didn’t end with the playoffs. Because of Edmonton’s last-place finish in the NHL, they had the best chance to win the Draft Lottery, and did so. The third of four picks from the Thomas Vanek compensation would be the 1st-Overall Pick. The Sabres, looking desperately for a new scoring threat, use the pick on dangerous winger Taylor Hall, believing him to be the top-line sniper that they need for the future. The Sabres also hold the 15th pick, using it on defender Derek Forbort.

With a playoff appearance under their belt, the Sabres were greeted with a renewed optimism that had once been considered lost for good. The HSBC Arena was experiencing regular sell-outs once more, and the team looked poised to one day be contenders again. Taylor Hall’s first season in Buffalo proves to be pretty solid, as he manages 42 points in 65 games, not a bad total for a teenage rookie. Ryan Miller isn’t quite able to replicate his form from the previous season, but his .916 SV% over 66 games is certainly good enough to keep the team competitive. In the end, Buffalo ends up 7th in the East with 96 points, locked up in the first round with the Philadelphia Flyers. The series goes seven games, but it would be the Flyers that take it, leaving Buffalo to deal with another first-round exit. A major bright spot for the Sabres is the play of Hall, who leads the team with five goals in the post-season.

The off-ice news would only continue to get better for Sabres fans, starting with the news in February that billionaire Terry Pegula would buy the team outright from Tom Golisano and his co-investors. Pegula quickly endears himself to local fans with his promise that the Sabres’ “reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup”, and making it clear that he was willing to spend big to achieve his goals. The Draft proves to be another windfall for the Sabres, as the last of the four picks from the Vanek signing is another 1st-Overall selection. Looking for a potential top-line centreman, the Sabres pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of the Red Deer Rebels, who managed 75 assists in his final junior season. The Sabres also hold the 16th-Overall Pick, selecting Finnish winger Joel Armia.

The Sabres go in to the 2011-12 season hoping to make a better run in the playoffs, and expecting big contributions from the Hall/Nugent-Hopkins duo. Though the two play well together, another young player steals the spotlight: Erik Karlsson. In his third full season, Karlsson has a breakout campaign, managing an astounding 78 points – 1st among defensemen by 25 points. He wins the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman, and is named an All-Star for the first time in his career. All in all, the Sabres prove to be a dangerous opponent for anyone, finishing 2nd in the East with 107 points – tops in the Northeast Division. Despite their wealth of talent, the Sabres find themselves unable to compete with the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs, losing the opening round in six games. With two picks in the 1st Round of the 2012 Entry Draft, the Sabres select Latvian centreman Zemgus Girgensons (14th Overall) and Finnish blue-liner Olli Maatta (23rd Overall).

The 2012-13 season is condensed due to the lockout, which nearly wiped out the season entirely, but for some last-minute negotiations. Given a short time span, the Sabres struggled to get off to a good start, but at least remained competitive throughout the season. With the team still in the midst of the race, Buffalo decides to hold on to pending free agent Jason Pominville, hoping that having him around will be enough to get them over the line. Darcy Regier’s hunch proves to be right, but just barely; the Sabres finish 8th in the East with 56 points. They are pitted in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who use their incredible talent to overwhelm Buffalo. The Pens win the series in five games, punctuated by two dominant home wins in Game 1 and 2. The Sabres have the 15th Overall Pick in the 2013 Draft, picking up blue-liner Ryan Pulock.

At this point, Terry Pegula is beginning to get impatient with the management team, as Buffalo looks to be sinking from contention. Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff are warned that failure to get past the first round next year will result in their dismissal. Their failure to re-sign Jason Pominville has fans being reminded of the days in which the team chose not to spend big, and mutters of discontent among the fan base are beginning to be heard. Those mutters become screams by February, as the team is well out of playoff contention. Regier and Ruff are fired, and long-time starting goalie Ryan Miller is traded to St. Louis in a deadline deal, as the Sabres finish 15th in the East with 74 points. New GM Tim Murray is given a hell of a welcoming gift, as the Sabres win the Draft Lottery; Murray only needs two words to announce his team’s pick, “Aaron Ekblad”.

For Tim Murray and head coach Ted Nolan, 2014-15 is a freebie. All they really need to do is play respectably enough, and see what they have going forward. As it turns out, what they have us not bad. Not only does Erik Karlsson return to form, but Aaron Ekblad has a fantastic rookie season. The biggest problems that Buffalo face are due to injuries (primarily to sniper Taylor Hall), and absolutely dreadful goaltending. Their net problems see the Sabres cycle between three different starters over the course of the season, eventually trading two of them. The last of the three, Andres Lindback, is actually pretty impressive, but by the time he arrives, it’s too late. The Sabres end up in 13th in the East, finishing with 81 points – not great by any means, but it could have been worse.

In the OTL, there is an important trade that happens: The Sabres trade Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Brendan Lemieux, Joel Armia, and St. Louis’ 1st-Round Pick in 2015 (acquired from the Blues for Ryan Miller) to Winnipeg for Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and goaltending prospect Jason Kasdorf. Because Myers is not on the team, there is no close equivalent to replace him, as Buffalo would NEVER part with either Erik Karlsson or Aaron Ekblad. There is also no need to acquire Evander Kane, as the Sabres already have Taylor Hall as a premier sniper. The Sabres do eventually let go of the St. Louis pick, trading it to Ottawa on Draft Day in a deal that brings goalie Robin Lehner to Buffalo. Their natural pick ends up 6th in the order, and is used on Pavel Zacha. The Sabres make another trade on Draft Day, sending Derek Forbort, Colin Wilson, J.T. Compher, and their 2nd-Round Pick to Colorado for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.

With the roster being remade so drastically, Tim Murray decides that as new head coach will be needed to deal with them all, and brings in former Stanley Cup-winner Dan Bylsma to take the reins. Bylsma was not his first choice, as the Sabres were involved in a fierce battle for the services of Mike Babcock, who eventually chose to go to Toronto. Bylsma does improve the squad a bit, and at least makes the team competitive down the stretch. Despite clear signs of improvement, Buffalo still misses out on the playoffs, finishing 10th in the East with 91 points. Robin Lehner and Ryan O’Reilly both prove useful in their debut seasons in Buffalo; Lehner only played 21 games, but managed a .924 SV%, while O’Reilly managed 60 points. Also of note is Erik Karlsson, who led the entire league in assists, barely missing out on a third Norris Trophy. The Sabres pick 13th in the 2016 Entry Draft, selecting defenseman Jake Bean.

For 2016-17, there is serious talk of the Sabres clinching a playoff spot. Robin Lehner is ready to be a full-time starter, and the first pairing of Karlsson and Ekblad is one of the best blue-line units in the entire game. Unfortunately, Ekblad’s play drops off, as does that of the likes of Olli Maatta, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The team can’t find any consistency in front of Lehner, and what was expected to be a competitive season for the Sabres is instead a wasted one. Buffalo finishes in 13th in the East, a drop of 7 points from the previous campaign. With another year of no post-season play, Terry Pegula cleans house; Tim Murray is fired, as is Dan Bylsma. Phil Housley takes over the coaching duties, while Jason Botterill takes the GM job left vacant by Murray. His first order of business is to handle the 2017 Draft, which sees Buffalo take winger Owen Tippett 10th Overall.

Housley, who won the 2013 World Junior Championship with the United States national team, and played eight seasons with the Sabres in the 80s, comes in with fans (and the front office) expecting him to be the answer to the team’s coaching problems. He succeeds in some areas, and fails in others, with his most notable success being Taylor Hall breaking out for 93 points – good enough for 6th in the NHL. Despite Hall’s strong season, however, other players can’t find their game under Housley. Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson struggle in goal, while Erik Karlsson looks worse both defensively and offensively. The Sabres are once again out of the playoffs, finishing 10th in the East with 88 points.

The Sabres Today: The decision not to match the Thomas Vanek offer sheet was, at the time, seen as the Sabres going on the word of their owner, rather than doing what was right for the team at the time. Looking back over ten years later, however, giving up Vanek may well have been better for Buffalo overall. The haul they got via Edmonton’s picks is impressive, and probably worth far more than Vanek would be at this time. Taylor Hall has become an elite winger who can bag 30 goals in a mediocre year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a resepectable NHL centreman who would fit on many teams’ top 6. And Erik Karlsson has become the best blue-liner in hockey today, putting up points at a rate not seen for D-men since the likes of his countryman, Nicklas Lidstrom. The 2009 pick, Zack Kassian, struggled with off-ice issues for a while, but seems to have turned his life around. Now on the Oilers, he is still a feared grinder who can chip in a few points here or there.

Despite all of the talent that Buffalo has, both from the Edmonton picks and their own maneuvering, the team is still haunted by the spectre of failure. One well-known hockey writer even coined a term for the Sabres’ woes, called the “Sword of Suck”. It seems as if one Sabre every year finds a new way to play below their potential, whether it be due to coaching adjustments, debilitating injuries, or other unknown factors. Almost everybody on the team has fallen victim to the “Sword of Suck”, with the most recent examples being the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who combined for the 3rd-worst save percentage in the entire league.

Overall, many would argue that the Sabres are, or should be, a regular playoff team. When he actually is on, Robin Lehner has been proven to be a solid NHL goalie. Taylor Hall has shown that he can be the cornerstone of a team’s offense, bolstered by Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo. Buffalo’s blue line is impressive, with the top pairing of Karlsson and Aaron Ekblad ranking among the very best in the league, and Olli Maatta and Ryan Pulock proving a solid second pairing. Despite all the talent that the Sabres have, the “Sword of Suck” still lingers, waiting to claim a victim. It seems as if the only way that Buffalo can make the next step and be a playoff team is for everybody to be on their game; until that happens, the Sabres will always find themselves on the outside looking in.


 

ON RESTRICTED FREE AGENCY

With all that has been said about this alternate scenario, it would be a massive oversight to not examine what effects the offer sheet would have on the world of restricted free agency as a whole. Offer sheets were once commonplace, with the early 90s being a free-for-all for RFAs. After the Sergei Fedorov offer sheet from Carolina (which saw the first year of Fedorov’s contract being worth $28 million), the market dried up completely until the league returned to play following the 2004-05 lockout. Vanek’s offer sheet in 2007 was only the second such instance in the OTL, preceded only by Ryan Kesler agreeing to terms with the Philadelphia Flyers the previous year – a deal that would be matched by Vancouver.

If the owners and general managers of the league were looking to find out how effective offer sheets would be in the new salary cap era, the Vanek move proved to be a heck of a trial balloon. With Vanek’s deal not being matched in this timeline, his progress – and that of the Oilers as a whole – would be examined closely. Though Vanek was young, and talented, his play would never quite match up to what he produced in the season before he hit the market as an RFA. His career high in points would not be equaled at any point, with his highest total with Edmonton coming in 2010-11 (73 points). Overall, Vanek produced like someone who can find a home on a team’s top 6, not as the franchise forward he was being paid as at over $7 million a year.

In the end, the Buffalo Sabres gave up a solid top 6 forward who was coming off a career year, and got a franchise D-man, a first-line sniper, a tough two-way centreman, and a bottom 6 grinder in return. Looking purely at the deal on its own, hockey media seems to agree that Buffalo won this deal in the long-term. Owners and GMs wouldn’t disagree too much, and the result would be a “chilling effect” when dealing with restricted free agents. Teams would certainly be more reluctant to go after extremely talented RFAs, knowing that the price could be as high as four prime prospects. As such, a certain set of conditions would have to be satisfied before an offer sheet is a realistic option:

  • The offering team has to be in the middle of their “playoff window”, preferably having made an appearance in the Conference Final in recent memory (either the immediate season prior, or the one previous to it). Those teams would have much lower picks in the order, which means less chance of giving up a potential top prospect by way of an offer sheet.
  • The offering team would likely not want to go for a top-dollar free agent unless they were certain that the RFA is a certified franchise player (e.g. Crosby, McDavid, or Ovechkin). The majority of offer sheets would be given to players who would fit on a second or third line/pairing.
  • Low-ranked teams, especially those closer to the very bottom of the standings, wouldn’t bother going for any RFAs that would cost them any 1st-Round Picks. Why sacrifice the chance at potential superstars for someone who wasn’t already one? The thought of acquiring the next Vanek in exchange for the next Karlsson, Hall, and Nugent-Hopkins would still be fresh in the minds of GMs, and nobody wants to repeat that mistake.

So, with all this in mind, how do offer sheets that happened in the OTL change?

  • On July 1st, 2008, the Vancouver Canucks tendered a 3-year, $7.5M offer sheet to St. Louis forward David Backes, which the Blues matched. There were negotiations at the time between the two sides to bring Backes to Vancouver that never materialized. As a low-ranked team, Vancouver would still not be scared off by the offer sheet, knowing that they would only be giving up a 2nd-Round Pick in exchange. St. Louis still matches.
  • Seven days later, the Blues return fire by signing Canucks forward Steve Bernier to a 1-year offer sheet at $2.5M, the same annual value of the Backes contract. Since this offer sheet is partially retaliatory in nature, they still make the offer, and Vancouver still matches.
  • In 2010, the San Jose Sharks agree to terms with Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, a 4-year deal worth $14M ($3.5M p/a). As San Jose had made it to the Western Conference Final the previous season, the prospect of giving up a 1st and a 3rd in 2011 would not have scared them off too much. The Blackhawks, as they did in the OTL, match the offer.
  • The biggest contract agreed to in restricted free agency comes in 2012, when the Philadelphia Flyers sign Nashville blue-liner Shea Weber to a 14-year, $110M offer sheet. This deal ($22M AAV as per RFA rules) would get Nashville a full slate of 1st-Round Picks over the next four years. Weber was certainly someone that would be highly courted as an RFA, but it’s uncertain whether Philadelphia, a team on the downswing at the time, would want to give up such a package for him. My guess would be that Philadelphia never makes the offer in the first place. Instead, Nashville signs Weber to a much more team-friendly deal.
  • Finally, in 2013, the Calgary Flames gave Ryan O’Reilly a 2-year, $10M offer sheet in 2013, one which Colorado would match. Calgary, coming off their fourth straight season without a playoff appearance, likely wouldn’t want to risk a 1st and a 3rd knowing that the 1st would potentially be a lottery pick. The offer sheet is never extended, and O’Reilly signs a team-friendly deal with the Avalanche.

The world of restricted free agency has, in recent years, become somewhat of a wasteland. Whether out of a fear of giving up prime picks, a lack of viable targets, or simple professional and personal courtesy, only seven offer sheets have been agreed upon in the salary cap era – none since 2013. In this timeline where the Vanek signing is completed, only four of those deals are still made. Having seen what the Oilers eventually gave up, front offices across the league are extremely hesitant to make the same mistake. Even the most desperate of teams would balk at offers involving multiple 1st-Round Picks, knowing that one of those could end up being a #1 selection. Not even a player like Shea Weber would justify that price, knowing the risks.

As off-seasons come and go, hockey media across North America constantly put out articles right around July 1st, looking at all of the high-profile restricted free agents who are prime targets for an offer sheet. Every year, though, the signing period comes and goes with no RFAs being enticed from their original teams. Even newer, younger General Managers, unaffected by the squabbles of RFAs past, have little desire to rock the boat with their more experienced peers. It will take a bold move to break the gridlock, and whoever makes it will have to make sure that the player they are extending an offer sheet to is truly worth what they would pay, both monetarily and in terms of compensatory picks. After all, nobody wants to repeat the Vanek move again.


 

Next month, a tumbling of the balls – What if the Pittsburgh Penguins did not win the 2005 Draft Lottery?

And as usual, if you have any ideas you want me to look at in the future, go ahead and let me know in the comments!

6 COMMENTS

  1. :up:

    it’s probably a hassle to do being that it spans a huge amount of time, but I’d love to see a "what if" on if the Houston Aeros bought the Cleveland Barons in 1978 like they tried to do, meaning no Barons/North Stars merge.

  2. These are fantastic, Matt. Thanks for putting the time and effort into these.

    Ever thought of a "what if" the Red Wings had actually been allowed to draft Pavel Bure? I just read about that entire debacle today and it was a pretty fascinating read.

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