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Why RFA movement could increase this NHL offseason

The circumstances, agent Steve Barlett says, need to be almost perfect.

There has to be a young player with the potential to live up to a big contract, and he needs to play for a team that either lacks spending money or is frugal with it. There must be a second team that has cash, and it has to employ a general manager who isn’t afraid to anger his associates.

Then, and maybe only then, will an NHL team deliver an offer sheet to a restricted free agent.

As the league nears Friday’s noon opening of free agency, the focus has been on big-name unrestricted free agents. But with Steven Stamkos staying in Tampa Bay, Milan Lucic apparently headed to Edmonton and Brian Campbell aiming for Chicago, the crop is thinning.

There are other dynamic players who will be without a contract Friday, including Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov and Rasmus Ristolainen. Hardly a word has been uttered about them. Their restricted status is the reason.

Any team can make a run at restricted free agents with an offer sheet, but they must give up compensation if they land one. The cost ranges from a third-round draft pick to a whopping four first-rounders, depending on the contract amount.

Only eight offer sheets have been handed out since the salary cap was instituted in 2005-06. Seven have been matched, keeping the players with their teams. One was Thomas Vanek, who signed a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet with Edmonton in July 2007 but remained in Buffalo when the Sabres matched.

As usually happens when free agency approaches, there are rumblings of a pending offer sheet. Boston, for example, is reportedly interested in Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba. Could this be the summer when a team throws a sheet to the wind?

“The cap system is even more in play than it was in the past because you clearly have teams that just don’t have money to match it right now,” Bartlett, who is Vanek’s agent, said by phone. “I think there are vulnerable teams, cap teams, that could have a restricted free agent that pops up and suddenly they’re exposed on their flank. Even though they want to keep a guy, a team may step up and make an offer that makes it virtually impossible for them to match.”

Indeed, with the salary cap rising $1.6 million − a small amount compared to prior jumps of $2.4 million and $4.7 million − some teams are feeling the pinch. Nearly half the league has less than $12.5 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly.com, so a substantial, unexpected raise for a young player could crush a budget.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you offer sheets are going to be a common occurrence,” Bartlett said. “I don’t think they are. I think there still is likely to be more of a chance.”

Bartlett had a feeling he could get one for Vanek entering the summer of 2007. Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano had set a strict budget, one that cost the team Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Sensing an opportunity, Edmonton pounced on Vanek. He was only 23 and had just put up a 43-goal season.

“I was pretty upfront with General Manager Darcy Regier,” said Bartlett, who was backed by other agents telling The Buffalo News the time was right for an offer sheet. “It wasn’t a secret. I said if we didn’t get a deal done I was going to make an attempt to get an offer sheet.

“Once we hit July 1, I was pretty active on the phones. As everybody knows, I did get the offer sheet from Edmonton, but I had two other teams who were very close to making one and possibly would have had it done had I not got one from Edmonton.

“At that time, people saw Buffalo as a team that maybe wouldn’t match. I’m speculating, but had the team that particular year not lost Briere and Drury, there’s a possibility that they wouldn’t have matched.”

The Sabres have one of the most coveted RFAs this year in Ristolainen, but the chance of a successful offer sheet is infinitesimal. Buffalo has cap space and views the defenseman as part of the future.

There are a few offer sheet possibilities based on talent and cap space. Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm, Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, Washington’s Marcus Johansson and Dmtry Orlov, and the New York Rangers’ Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller fit the category of rising players on teams that don’t have much money available.

Of course, another team needs to have the courage to pounce. The Sabres were furious with Edmonton after the Vanek contract, but it was nothing compared to Anaheim’s rage. The Oilers plucked Dustin Penner from the Ducks after missing out on Vanek, and then-Anaheim GM Brian Burke ultimately challenged the Oilers’ Kevin Lowe to fight in a barn.

“I always found it amusing there was this mentality in the league that, ‘Hey, we really can’t do that offer sheet. It’s almost like screwing our partners,’” Bartlett said. “At the same time, isn’t a general manager’s first, primary job to have the most competitive team that he can?

“I complete understand, ‘Why should I aggravate him when he’s going to match anyway,’ which was the old mentality. I’m not sure that’s quite as much the case now, particularly for teams in cap trouble.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com