General Manager Jeff Gorton has his hands full this summer. This is clear by now. The media, Blueshirt Banter being part of it, have dissected most of the decisions the Rangers have to make this summer to the point that it's almost become nauseating and stale.
A topic that has been put on the back burner is J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Chris Kreider all being restricted free agents. Part of the reason why is that those don't necessarily have to be addressed immediately. Restricted free agents are often a last order of business.
But perhaps there's also a naive lack of worry. J.T. Miller has arbitration rights, but other than that RFA's have little leverage beyond the threat of offer sheets. And offer sheets are rare, so what's the real concern?
Offer sheets are indeed rare. Since the salary cap became active in 2005, just eight players have signed an offer sheet, including only two in the previous five offseasons. When brainstorming reasons why, some will explain that an unofficial agreement exists between general managers, and that making offers to other teams' RFA's is heavily frowned upon.
Sure, GMs would likely prefer to acquire players via alternative means. But this is a lazy explanation for the lack of offer sheets. The NHL is a business, as the cliché goes, and a cutthroat one at that. GMs are evaluated by their higher-ups on a yearly basis, and most don't have a guarantee of employment beyond a few years; if even that. In an ultra-competitive, unforgiving business, GMs are going to exploit every method of improving his (or her) team. Making another team slightly grumpy for a few days pales in comparison to missing the playoffs and losing one's job.
The true deterrent for offer sheets is that they're just not pragmatic. Nate MacKinnon is also an RFA this summer, but Colorado wouldn't even hesitate before matching any offer sheet he received from another team. They'd work the salary cap around him. Contract negotiations are exhausting and time consuming, and this is even more true when significant amounts of money on a long-term basis are being considered. So what would be the point? In the case of MacKinnon, and most RFAs, negotiating an offer sheet is almost certainly a lot of hard work for nothing. Teams have a laundry list of tasks to complete each offseason and many of them are time sensitive. Dedicating time an energy to a probable failure is impractical. Of the eight offer sheets that have been submitted and signed since 2006, only one was not matched; the Ducks elected to let Dustin Penner sign with the Oilers.
The Rangers are in a predicament, however. They're walking a salary cap tightrope, and it's one that forced them to lose Keith Yandle. Quite simply, they do not have the economic malleability to unilaterally declare that they can and will match any offer sheet. The Boston Bruins were faced with a similar problem last offseason, with little cap space and an unsigned Dougie Hamilton. They knew an offer sheet they could not afford was inevitable, and so they traded him to Calgary for 50 cents on the dollar. The same is to be said for Chicago with Brandon Saad.
Making an offer sheet on one of the Rangers' forwards, in this case, may very well be worth the effort. Gorton is juggling a thousand different pieces while trying to make it agreeable with an unaccommodating salary cap. And, in the process, he has to make a last gasp in keeping the contention window open. The team can perhaps afford to lock up one, maybe two, of Hayes, Miller, and Kreider on long-term deals. They almost assuredly can not do so for all three. An offer sheet on one of them could mean that player's departure. Or, it could force the Rangers' hand on the remaining two.
Should a team offer J.T. Miller or Kevin Hayes $3.6 annually for the next three years, which is a perfectly reasonable contract for either, can the Rangers comfortably match that without further suffocating themselves financially? And yet, the compensation for one's departure would be a measly second-round pick. Or, if the Rangers were to match, could they then afford to match a big contract offer for Chris Kreider? Would they instead settle for a short-term deal, thereby making Kreider's departure as an unrestricted free agent in two years all but inevitable? If they decide on locking Kreider up long-term first, how limited will their wiggle room be with the remaining two? Or is Derek Stepan or Derick Brassard the player sacrificed? In any of these cases, the Rangers come out as losers.
For all of the Rangers' issues, one reason for optimism both now and in the long-term is their glut of young, productive forwards. But their star-crossed situation of having three of them out of contract while backed into a corner might require them to dismantle it. And, like the Blackhawks and Bruins, do so while getting an insufficient return on investment. The Rangers might very well be able to navigate this without major consequence, but it's just another delicate task to add to the growing pile that Gorton must tackle this summer.