The recent offer sheets tendered by Kevin Lowe has elicited much reaction. Some accuse Lowe of ruining the salary structure of the entire league and Brian Burke even went so far as to paint Lowe as desperate and stupid. Others defended Lowe's approach, saying he has to do whatever he believes is in his team's best interest and they applaud his bold moves at young restricted free agents. Some see offer sheets as the wave of the future in the NHL. If indeed that is the case, and GMs begin throwing offer sheets at even more RFAs, I believe the teams that exercise restraint in this area and do not sign RFAs will be the successful teams.
There are two essential problems with signing an talented RFA:
1) You must offer him a contract well above his current worth and hope he develops at a pace that by the end of the deal, he has become a bargain. Many things can go wrong with this strategy. The player can plateau and stop progressing, he can suffer serious injury and never reach his potential, his confidence could waver under the pressure of his big new contract, or he may fail to fit into his new team's system as well as that of his previous team. There are simply too many things that can go wrong in terms of an RFA producing at a rate comensurate with the relatively higher salary he will command. Since the trend in the NHL is toward longer term contracts, a failed RFA signing could handcuff a team's payroll for half a decade or longer.
2) It is not simply that a team must overpay the player (at least initially). The team must also give up compensatory draft picks, with the quality of the picks being tied the salary commanded by the RFA. The higher the salary, the higher (and more numerous) the draft picks. To use the Dustin Penner example, the Ducks received a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rounder from the Oilers as compensation. For the Oilers to get good value in the Penner signing, not only will Penner have to live up to the his 5 year, $21.25 million contract, he will also have to outperform those picks (or any player acquired by the Ducks in trading the picks). If Penner fails to both live up to his salary and outplay those draft picks, the Oilers will have gotten the poor end of the deal. Lowe essentially traded away the top half of the Oilers' 2008 draft, unless they can steal a gem in the later rounds (think Zetterberg) or trade for a pick in the first three rounds. The overall depth of the Oilers organization will suffer without those high draft picks to replenish it. If the Oilers have a poor season and the first rounder ends up being in the top 5, the Oilers will look very foolish.
Star players are a huge part of winning a championship, but depth and solid play from all four lines and all defensemen is also key. If teams are gambling on RFAs, they not only gamble their payroll/salary cap if the RFA does not pan out, they gamble with their depth and their future as well. Unless Penner turns into another John LeClair or Cam Neely power forward, the signing will hurt the Oilers. Signing RFAs is a huge risk and not likely to bring enough value to justify that risk.