Should the Leafs sign any of the “big three” RFAs to an offer sheet?

From Flames Nation: Outside the Box: Sign Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet

Dave Nonis didn’t sign any other teams’ restricted free agents when he was the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, but he felt the pinch when Ryan Kesler was signed to a $1.9M offer sheet in the summer of 2006. I never got the sense Nonis was too rattled, and kept quiet on the topic of offer sheets for his tenure. 

Of course, opting to take the deal in the stead of two Philadelphia selections turned out to be the wise move. If Nonis failed to surround the Canucks with talent when he was the general manager, he certainly had a knack for locking up pieces eventually used by Mike Gillis to bring the team to within a game of the final.

But what about signing players to offer sheets? Toronto has all of their draft picks available save this year’s 4th round selection, so they could sign any offer sheet to any restricted free agent available. There are a few interesting RFAs available, but the three most intriguing ones are Ryan O’Reilly, Jamie Benn, and Pernell Karl Subban.

Ryan O’Reilly

The Leafs need a first line centre. O’Reilly’s rights belong to the Colorado Avalanche, and doesn’t appear to be too concerned about coming over to North America unless he’s offered the $4M salary he gets from Mettallurg Magnitogorsk. (The other storyline here is, playing on Nik Kulemin’s team for a few games, they must be best friends now, so of course he’d want to sign in Toronto. Also, he’s from a small-town in Southern Ontario, so obviously it’s his life-long dream to play with the Leafs)

If you need a refresher, here’s how RFA compensation works. There are no changes to the system in the new collective agreement. From Pension Plan Puppets:

  • $1,110,249 or below – No Compensation
  • Over $1,110,249 to $1,682,194 – 3rd round pick
  • Over $1,682,194 to $3,364,391 – 2nd round pick
  • Over $3,364,391 to $5,046,585 – 1st round pick, 3rd
  • Over $5,046,585 to $6,728,781 – 1st round pick, 2nd, 3rd
  • Over $6,728,781 To $8,410,976 – Two 1st Round Picks, 2nd, 3rd
  • Over $8,410,976 – Four 1st Round Picks

Anything up to $5-million would cost the Leafs a 1st and a 3rd. While nobody disputes that Toronto needs a first line centre, in the aftermath of the Kessel deal, people do dispute that the Leafs would be wise to give up first round selections, particularly ones that aren’t lottery-protected.

The moves of the past, however, shouldn’t influence those of the future. O’Reilly is going into his 21-year old season, a year younger than Kessel was when he started his first season with the Leafs. Another key difference is that O’Reilly plays centre, a much more valuable position on the ice, one who has the ability to affect the play at both ends more convincingly, with a few notable exceptions.

All that said, the risk of giving up a first round pick is fairly high, particularly when we only have a couple of thousand minutes of NHL time to gauge O’Reilly’s quality. His main offensive partner in Colorado last season was Gabriel Landeskog, the Calder Trophy winner, and all Landeskog does is drive play. The two were exceptional together, with a 56.4% puck-possession rate together, while O’Reilly was 47.0% outside of the pairing, and Landeskog was still well over even at 51.3%. [Hockey Analysis]

The Leafs need a play-driving centre. Right now I’m not sure if the proof exists that Landeskog isn’t a Corey Perry-esque exception to my belief that centres traditionally drive play, not wingers. While O’Reilly works very well with Landeskog, it’s too big of a risk to assume the same sort of chemistry with Kessel.

Jamie Benn

That said, Jamie Benn, a good BC-boy, is also a centreman, albeit a converted one. Benn’s WOWYs, or “with or without you” are more impressive than O’Reilly’s. Here are the puck-possession rates (measured by shot differential) of Benn’s top flankers last season:

  Benn when Apart Teammate when Apart
Steve Ott 50.9% 51.2%
Michael Ryder 51.9% 47.4%
Loui Eriksson 52.8% 49.6%

Steve Ott’s separation from the Dallas lineup is actually going to be a good case-study. Generally, when the two played together, they’d split the face-off duties, and Ott would also play on Dallas’ top checking unit. He had a fairly good season last year. Benn took 713 draws with the Stars last year, had a fairly decent QualComp and a very high Relative Corsi rate.

Here are the relevant advanced stats here, quality of competition, puck-possession, and time on ice, via Behind the Net:

  Corsi Rel QoC Relative Corsi TOI
2012 .493 (8th/14) 10.7 (3rd/14) 14.38 (3rd/14)
2011 .539 (7th/13) 5.4 (3rd/13) 13.63 (5th/13)

I think the year-to-year consistency here is more impressive than any one dominant season, and if the Leafs were going to gamble a couple of picks on an RFA centreman, Benn is the better bet. That said, he may command a higher price than O’Reilly, but the Leafs have the cap space and the picks. I think there’s a better return there. The only evidence I can find on Benn’s price is somewhere between $5.5M and $6M, which would cost the Leafs three picks, but give them a very good 23-year old who is sure to provide defensive support for Kessel.

PK Subban

One thing the Leafs severely lack is a good two-way defenceman to take the right side of the ice and provide support for the overworked Dion Phaneuf-Carl Gunnarsson pairing. Into François Beauchemin’s spot, the Leafs plugged in a defenceman named Jake Gardiner, who can’t handle the heavy minutes yet, and they haven’t provided him with a suitable right side mate to play with.

It just so happens Subban is one of the young, elite defenders in the game today. Discussions about his work ethic and cockiness aside, Subban is one of the lone play-drivers on a barren Montreal Canadiens team. I’ve charted out Subban’s WOWY’s with the Canadiens teammates he’s played over 500 minutes with in the last two seasons:

Other than a very good centreman in Tomas Plekanec, every player does better with than without PK on the ice. Lars Eller, Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and David Desharnais go from sub-50% players to possession players with PK. That’s the effect a top defenceman can have on the club.

He’s basically the Habs’ equivalent of Mikhail Grabovski, just on D. It would be nice to have a conceivable future where Grabovski and Subban are working over the Habs in their own end, where Greg Patyrn and a few picks can’t stop them.

Taking Risks

One aspect of the new collective bargaining agreement I don’t like is that it penalizes risk-takers. The Leafs made big moves in Burke’s first year acquiring both Phaneuf and Kessel, who have lived up to their returns, but the windows on their primes are dwindling. The Leafs have a few good prospect pieces, notably Morgan Rielly, but are there any established NHLers currently on the roster who you can see being big pieces for the Leafs three or four years down the line?

Draft picks are free because they’re essentially lottery tickets: a first-round pick is not guaranteed to yield a fantastic return. It just so happens that the Leafs were awful in their first year with Kessel, Boston picked up Tyler Seguin, and then Dougie Hamilton fell to ninth overall. Still, even with the accolades those prospects have earned, neither are core components of the Boston Bruins yet. Perhaps they will be in a couple of years, but Kessel is more vital to the Leafs than Seguin is to the Bruins.

My argument is that waiting on draft picks to develop will set the Leafs into perpetual orbit around the Entry Draft like Edmonton or Long Island, and the assets they currently have: all of their draft picks, unlimited money, and salary cap space, ought to be put to use to giving the team good players that we know will be good players. Each of the above options is a good fit for the Leafs and addresses perpetual team needs, not just for this franchise but for all others. A team will always need a top centreman like Benn, or a top defenceman like Subban.

Nonis isn’t, or wasn’t, a risk taker in Vancouver, which is part of the reason he made the playoffs just one out of three seasons at the helm in Vancouver. After gutting the Brian Burke’s Canucks, he acquired a young Roberto Luongo—his best move—but failed to address holes in front of him, leaving an offensively drained team forced to play the trap to compete.

When you acquire a younger player, there’s significantly less risk. It’s not like it’s in Nonis’ best interests to add a 33-year old goaltender and nothing else. The group in front of the goaltending needs to be addressed, with the Leafs being one of the poorest possession teams in the league last season. A defensively-responsible centreman for Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, or another top defenceman, who close some of that gap.

Surely there will be conflicting opinions in the comments, but if the Leafs have assets to spend, they ought to spend them now, rather than letting them depreciate in value over time.

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  • SkinnyFish

    Subban *is* that good, but the whacky season the Habs had has to be taken into account when looking at that team. They were an excellent possession club for 20 or so games, ending when they had a cluster of injuries just before Martin was fired, and Cunneyworth, well, I don’t think he was ever going to preside over a positive possession club.

    That said, it’s really odd that the Habs haven’t somehow managed to sign Subban yet. Word on the street is that Subban wants long and the Habs want short, which is puzzling — why wouldn’t you want to sign a guy like Subban to a long-term value deal now, while his offensive stats are in a low?

  • doggit

    Good read Cam…

    I’d choose Benn over the other two RFA’s. I don’t necessarily trust O’Reilly and we need a top tier C more than a puck moving D man… presently and in the future.

    The only reservation I’d have is that these three RFA’s aren’t guarenteed to turn out either. The NHL is full of players who start their careers with promise and then completely fall off the map…

  • doggit

    I think Subban or Benn would be the best choice, with the nod going to Benn as # 1 centre is the greater need. If Montreal would rather have the picks than Subban, Nonis would have to be crazy not give Subban, an offer sheet. Getting a stud D man for a 1st and 3rd pick is a no brainer.

  • doggit

    Subban or Benn would both likely fall into the category where we would give up a 1st, 2nd and 3rd round pick but as long as we avoid a bottom 5 finish getting either one would be worth it. Personally I would prefer Subban, because the prospect of Rielly, Gardiner, Subban and Phaneuf as our top-4 down the line sounds pretty good to me.