Skip to main content

Colorado Avalanche's Ryan O'Reilly celebrate teammate Erik Johnson's goal as Vancouver Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider and Keith Ballard look on during first period NHL action at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Wednesday, March 16, 2011.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Rivalries? Aren't they wonderful? Especially when they're played out in the NHL boardrooms, and not even on the ice.

Two of the NHL's better rivals became a little more bitter toward one another over a span of a few hours Thursday. First, the Calgary Flames tried to poach the Colorado Avalanche's leading scorer last season, restricted free agent Ryan O'Reilly, to an offer sheet. Later in the day, the Avalanche announced that they'd matched the offer and will retain O'Reilly's rights.

Calgary structured the contract in a way to make it as punitive as possible in terms of the Avalanche's obligation to the disgruntled forward, with whom they had been involved in a bitter dispute. Unlike Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars or P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens – two other restricted free agents who eventually came to terms with their respective teams on contracts – the O'Reilly negotiations were going nowhere and it looked as though the two sides were headed for a divorce.

Calgary tried to facilitate that by signing him to an offer sheet worth $10-million – a $2.5-million in signing bonus, a modest $1-million for this season and a whopping $6.5-million for next (all currency U.S.). It was a lot to pay a player who'd never scored more than 55 points in an NHL season and was known more for his two-way abilities than any pure scoring talent he might possess.

Many wondered about the sanity of the Flames – a so-so NHL team that would have been obliged to surrender first- and third-round draft choices to the Avalanche if their pitch for O'Reilly had been successful. It wouldn't take much for the Flames to slide from their current perch – 23rd overall heading into Thursday night's action – into the bottom three spots in the NHL, where they could potentially land a franchise player in next summer's highly anticipated entry draft.

Calgary thought the gamble was worth it, on the grounds that it has long been unable to draft or develop a No. 1 centre of its own. In his first three NHL seasons, O'Reilly had posted modest scoring numbers – 107 points in 236 games.

Sidney Crosby, he isn't.

What he is, according to scouts, is a heart-and-soul two-way player, who can be a quality No. 2 centre or an exceptional No. 3. For that, the Flames agreed to pay him a $2.5-million signing bonus, a $1-million salary for this year and then gave him a whopping raise – to $6.5-million – for next season.

Naturally, O'Reilly was busy putting out brush fires on Twitter on Thursday night. He said he was "very excited to join back up with the boys" and added: "can't wait to get on the ice and play in front of the great Avalanche fans again."

Call that damage control of the first order.

O'Reilly then went to say: "Sorry to everyone about the situation. I'm very glad it's over and now I can focus on what I love to do."

There were no tweets from O'Reilly thanking the Flames for expediting the process.

O'Reilly came into the league as an 18-year-old after being the 33rd player chosen in the 2009 entry draft, the same year the Avs took Matt Duchene third overall. This summer, Duchene signed a two-year deal worth a total of $7-million. The Avs were trying to get O'Reilly to agree to a similar contract in one of a handful of different scenarios the two sides had discussed in the long and often contentious talks between the two teams.

Colorado has seen this happen to it before when the New York Rangers signed Joe Sakic to an offer sheet back in 1997. That time the Avs waited until the 11th hour and then matched the three-year, $21-million offer, which included a prohibitive $15-million signing bonus, payable up front. Sakic ended up playing his entire career in the Quebec/Colorado organization and now acts as an adviser to general manager Greg Sherman.

"Hey look, it's their right within the CBA," said Sherman, who was trying to take the high road, but let his unhappiness with the Flames' course of action sift through in his tone. "If that's the way they want to do their business, that's their right."

Flames general manager Jay Feaster, who signed O'Reilly to the offer sheet, and Flames' coach Bob Hartley also have strong Avalanche connections, both having come through their system, starting with their AHL affiliate in Hershey. Hartley coached the 2001 Avalanche to the Stanley Cup championship. Former GM Pierre Lacroix, now a senior adviser with to Sherman, is considered a mentor to Feaster, who is now forced to go back to the drawing board, trying to find someone to plug that gaping hole in the middle. The Flames are not averse to trying bold moves – two years ago, they were in there, unsuccessfully as it turned out, bidding for Brad Richards on the free-agent market.

Just for once, the hard feelings in the two executive suites might have exceeded the rancour on the ice. What fun.