Long a team that's been unable to draft or develop a No. 1 centre of their own, the Calgary Flames waded into unfamiliar territory Thursday, tendering an offer sheet to Colorado Avalanche's restricted free agent Ryan O'Reilly in the hopes that he will fill a major organizational weakness. TSN first reported the deal earlier today.
O'Reilly has been embroiled in a contract dispute with the Avalanche since the NHL lockout ended. Unlike other players in a similar situation – such as the Montreal Canadiens' P.K. Subban and the Dallas Stars' Jamie Benn, who eventually came to terms with their respective clubs – O'Reilly and the Avalanche appeared unable to make any headway in the negotiations.
The thinking was that Colorado would eventually trade O'Reilly, just to head off the possibility of an offer sheet, such as the one Calgary tendered.
The structure of the deal is important because it establishes what O'Reilly will make going forward. A two-year package worth $10-million in total, O'Reilly would earn only $1-million in base salary this year, but receive a $2.5-million signing bonus. What makes it noteworthy is how the base salary jumps to $6.5-million in the second year, at which point O'Reilly will be out of the NHL's entry-level period and gain arbitration rights.
Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, with a $6.5-million base salary in 2013-14, Calgary – or any team that happens to own O'Reilly's rights at that time – would be obliged to make that the starting point of any qualifying offers they might tender. In other words, he becomes an expensive commodity in a real hurry.
If Colorado decides not to match the offer, the Avs would receive a first- and a third-round draft choice from Calgary as compensation. If the Avs do match, they would not be able to trade O'Reilly's rights for a full calendar year. They have a week – until Mar. 7 – to make up their minds.
It's a tricky bit of business by Flames' general manager Jay Feaster, designed to make it more difficult for Colorado to match the offer and keep the player. O'Reilly led the Avalanche in scoring last season with 55 points in 81 games, including 18 goals.
In a statement, the Flames confirmed that they had signed O'Reilly to the offer sheet, but provided no further details.
"Under the rules pertaining to an offer sheet, we will allow the process to transpire," said Feaster. "We will not provide any further comment until the process is complete."
The difficulty in assessing O'Reilly's value is trying to project what his upside might be. He just turned 22 two weeks ago, but has never been a productive goal scorer, even dating back to his time with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. However, he is known for his strong two-way play and is considered a top leader. Long-term, one scout described him as either a 2B or a 3A centre, a player that you win with, but may not necessarily pile up the big scoring points.
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 them one time before when the New York Rangers signed Joe Sakic to an offer sheet back in 1997. 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.
Feaster and Flames' coach Bob Hartley also have strong Avalanche connections, both having come through their system, starting 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.
And to make things just a touch more salacious, the two sides play against one another tonight in Denver.