It seems that an annual "rite" around any blog/forum/board talking hockey ends up being about going after RFAs.
And more often than not, people forget a few simple rules.
1 - If the offer sheet (which is really a contract that the current team can either agree to, or allow the player to sign with the 'poaching' club) is successful and you "get your man", you're liable for compensation to the old club in the form of draft picks. Links are available in other threads/posts that have the current salary bands and compensatory pick information, or GOOGLE works really well.
2 - The picks have to be your own picks for the next draft, and you must have those picks available. You can't have traded the pick away. And the pick can't be another team's that you received from a trade. Example: Team "Y" swings a trade tomorrow with Dallas for the rights to Brad Richards and Dallas' 3rd round pick in 2012, and included is Team Y's 1st and 3rd round pick in 2012. After July 1st, they sign Matt Gilroy to an Offer Sheet for 1.5mm. Oops! They can't, because 1.5mm requires a 3rd round pick to go to the Rangers if successful, and they just traded it for Richards' rights, and they can't use Dallas' 3rd rounder. Them's the rules.
3 - A club must submit a Qualifying Offer (edit: or file for arbitration) in order to retain negotiating rights with the player. If they do not submit a qualifying offer (edit: or file for arbitration), the player becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent
4 - For players earning less than $1mm on their 'old' contract, the QO must be 5 or 10% higher depending on what they were earning. If the old contract salary was $1mm or greater, the QO must be the same as the old value. For example, since Matt Gilroy's salary was 2.1mm, if the NYR extend a QO, it must be $2.1 or higher. It cannot be lower (thus the suspicion that the NYR will allow him to become a UFA). So too would the QOs for Callahan and Dubinsky match their current annual salary. Mike Sauer, being on a sub-$1mm contract, would be required to get a 10% raise based on his $500k salary last season (to $550k).
More after the jump:
5 - Either a player or a club can request Salary Arbitration. A club can request it only once in a player's RFA career. A player can request it as many times as they like if their contract has expired.
I won't go into the detailed rules of arbitration - that would need to be a separate encyclopaedia. For the purposes of this discussion,
if a team/player elect arbitration, the outcome is either: A) the arbitrator's decision is accepted by the club and becomes the contract or B) the club declines. At that point the player can declare himself an Unrestricted Free Agent (this is "the Zherdev Principle").
Edit: If a PLAYER elects arbitration, the team can A) accept the arbitrator's decision and tender an SPC (Standard Players Contract) for the amount/term specified, or B) notify the League and player/agent that they do not intend to offer an SPC. The player automatically becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent. (This is the actual "Zherdev Principle").
If a CLUB elects arbitration - the arbitrator's decision is binding. A club cannot walk away from an arbitration award that they initiated.
The term of the SPC is determined by the party against whom the action was brought. In other words, if a PLAYER elects arbitration, the CLUB will select either a one or two year term for the outcome. Conversely, if the CLUB elects to take a player to arbitration, the PLAYER determines whether the contract will be one or two years in duration.
6 - Ways to work around all these rules. The NYR did it when Hank's last contract was up. Somewhat hamstrung by salary cap, they worked out a relatively cheap interim deal that got him off the RFA streets without going to arbitration. The deal was effectively that they would do a 'contract extension' come January when the rules ease and the 'new contract' doesn't impact the current season cap hit. Something like this could come into play with teams like the NJD with Parise, or even the NYR again with someone like Sauer.
Or teams can do "the Zherdev Principle" and just say "No" (for player-elected arbitration).
7 - Offer Sheets are rare - and successfully getting the guy you want is even rarer. Since the current rules went into effect with the CBA, only one (1) RFA was successfully poached - Edmonton getting Dustin Penner from Anaheim. And a total of six were attempted (the other 5 matched by the rights-holding team).
Hopefully, this helps those with RFA aspirations to understand the fundamentals, and why many people say "don't waste your time"