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No-touch gloves are off for restricted free agents

Restricted free agency was an understatement. Something like "off-limits" or "don't even think about it" free agency made more sense. The NHL mind-set was clear, as general managers adhered to the unwritten rule of ignoring other teams' younger players.

Bob Clarke, as the former captain of Philadelphia's "Broad Street Bullies," rarely had time for the printed rules. Think an unwritten one would stop him from trying to improve his team as a GM?

So Clarke rattled the system. After eight years of restricted free agents getting zero attention -- and one year of studying the league's new collective bargaining agreement -- Clarke made an offer last summer to Vancouver Canucks restricted free agent forward Ryan Kesler.

Clarke was called a lot of things -- good and bad -- after his move. We'll find out in the next few weeks whether "trendsetter" should join the list.

Many in the hockey industry say the answer will be yes.

The NHL free agency period starts July 1, and for the first time people are looking at all the available names, not just the ones on the unrestricted list. There's a belief Clarke's offer will be mimicked.

"The rules are there, and I think other teams will start using them," Clarke said by phone last week. "Why wouldn't you? Your responsibility is to do what's right for your team, to help your team as a manager, and if you're willing to give up draft picks and probably pay a little more to get a player, then why shouldn't you use the rules? I think it will be used a lot more now."

Kesler's agent, Kurt Overhardt, agrees. He said a handful of teams inquired about Kesler before Clarke made his offer in September, and he feels the interest in restricted free agents will turn into action now that someone has made the first move.

"Like anything else, you need something to kick-start it," Overhardt said. "It takes someone who wants to be a leader and has got fortitude to do something that most people don't.

"Based on the competitive nature of the new system and the competitive nature of the 30 teams in the league, I'd be very surprised if there aren't a couple of Group II offer sheets."

>Compensation lowered

Here's a primer on restricted free agency. Known as Group II free agents, they are younger players who are typically entitled to raises of 5 percent or 10 percent. When their team extends that raise in the form of a qualifying offer, it gets to match any other team's offer or receive draft-pick compensation. Teams may go over the cap to sign players, but never by more than 10 percent, and they must get under the cap by opening night.

The compensation awards were lessened in the CBA that began in 2005, one of two reasons the days of ignoring Group II players may be over. Clarke signed Kesler to a $1.9 million offer, and the Canucks matched it. If they hadn't, they would have received a second-round draft pick. If Clarke had made the same offer in 2000, Vancouver would have been entitled to two first-round draft picks.

"Under the old system the compensation levels were significantly greater," Overhardt said. "Under the new system I think it's much more realistic."

The other catalyst for change is the salary cap. Under the prior system, teams could match an offer to their restricted free agent merely by raising their payroll. That luxury is gone. If an organization finds itself near the payroll ceiling, it may not have the room to match.

"It's clear that there was an unwritten understanding in the previous CBA that if a club was going to tender an offer sheet, it was going to be matched right away," agent Jay Grossman said. "In this collective bargaining agreement, we have clubs that could be up against the cap and potentially not even be able to match. It presents itself as a more viable and realistic option for clubs.

"It's also a little bit of a game of economic warfare because you can create havoc on other clubs and their payrolls. Not that clubs are looking to play that game, but certainly it's a competitive system."

Clarke acknowledged as much. He went after Kesler because the Flyers needed a replacement for concussed center Keith Primeau. But the byproduct was Vancouver had to spend $1 million more for Kesler than it had planned. That's $1 million less to allocate elsewhere to make the team even better.

"Another thing, honestly, is you look at the amount of money a team has to spend," said Clarke, now the Flyers' senior vice president. "If a team gets themselves in a financial bind under the cap, then obviously it changes the way you look at them."

>Sabres ripe for picking

That's where the Buffalo Sabres come in. They had salary cap problems last season, and they may reach the ceiling again.

They have six restricted free agents and gave qualifying offers to five -- Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Daniel Paille, Nathan Paetsch and Andrew Peters. Vanek is probably the most attractive Group II player in the NHL. The 23-year-old scored 43 goals last season, and he possesses an upside that could entice teams to investigate his availability.

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier plans to address unrestricted free agents before negotiating with Group II players. If he spends heavily in the unrestricted market, a team might make a push for Vanek knowing it would force a numbers crunch at HSBC Arena.

"I'm not a believer in operating out of fear," Regier said. "I've seen it take place in this business where you absolutely have to have somebody, and you pay for it, and you pay for it for some rumor.

"The reality is there's a market value. He's a very good player. He's a very important player. There's a market value, and you have to stay the course and you have to be looking at it on a longer term and not just a short-term reaction."

>Strategy debated

Not everyone is convinced restricted free agents will garner attention. They're hoping fiscal restraint reigns.

The obvious drawback to signing a restricted player is overpaying. Kesler was just 22 years old with only 12 goals in 110 games when the Flyers made their offer. Giving $1.9 million for those numbers drives up the market price for everyone. But Vancouver would have readily matched any low offer. The Flyers had to force them into a tough decision.

Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell said a strong draft class next season also will make teams hesitant to part with compensatory picks. Clarke countered by saying teams picking near the bottom would be better off trying to get someone who already has begun to establish himself.

"If you're drafting early, you have a chance to get a star player," Clarke said. "But if you're drafting late in the first round, you may get a player. But in all likelihood he's not going to be a first- or second-line player."

A player like Vanek is. The Thrashers gave up first-, second- and third-round picks (plus a player) for Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline; he played with them for two months. For a $4 million offer sheet, Vanek could be had long term for the same picks.

This summer should show whether the general managers think that's an option.

"I think they might not come out and say it, but they might believe it because basically anything they'll do to improve their clubs, they'll do. That's their responsibility," Grossman said. "The fact that it was done already, it will make people less reluctant to make that kind of move."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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Restricted free agency / The formula

Offer / Compensation

$660,000 and below / None

Over $660,000 to $1 million / Third round

Over $1 million to $2 million / Second round

Over $2 million to $3 million / First and third round

Over $3 million to $4 million / First, second and third round

Over $4 million to $5 million / Two firsts, one second and third

Over $5 million / Four first rounds

Salary figures based on 2006-07 season; if average league salary increases June 30, offer figures increase by same percentage

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