The Columbus Blue Jackets Should Offer Sheet Anthony Cirelli

By Dan Dukart on December 3, 2020 at 8:05 am
Anthony Cirelli nearly scores during the second period in game two of the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The offer sheet is one of the more fascinating tools in the modern NHL GM's toolkit.

It's also among the most underutilized. While generally frowned upon, this could be an optimum time for a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are looking to take the step from good to contender, to prey on a team in a salary cap bind, like the Tampa Bay Lightning. Here's a definition of the tool, per CapFriendly:

An Offer Sheet is a signed and binding contract offer presented to a restricted free agent player whose rights are currently held by another club. Any team (other than the team that currently owns the players rights) can submit an Offer Sheet, with the goal of signing that player.

 A few nuances need to be addressed. First off, a player would have to negotiate and accept an offer sheet put forward from an opposing team. It's not like the Blue Jackets (or any other team) could simply tag an RFA. Secondly, the offer-sheeting club would have to have the draft pick compensation available that is in accordance with the player's new salary.

Offer Sheet Compensation 2020
Salary Compensation
$1,439,820 or less None
$1,439,820 to $2,181,545  Third-round pick
$2,181,545 to $4,363,095 Second-round pick
$4,363,095 to $6,544,640 First and third-round picks
$6,544,640 to $8,726,188 First, second and third-round picks
$8,726,188 to $10,907,735 Two firsts, a second and third-round picks
Over $10,907,735  Four first-round picks

The Blue Jackets don't have a second-round draft pick in the upcoming draft (hard to believe this club is still paying for the Anthony Duclair-Ryan Dzingel trade, but alas...), so that eliminates several salary tiers from even a theoretical (theoretical) discussion.

Okay, so why Anthony Cirelli? As aforementioned, the Lightning are squarely in salary cap hell, and no team should be tossing the defending Stanley Cup-champions a life preserver. As it stands today, they are nearly $2M over the salary cap and still have not yet signed Cirelli or Eric Cernak. And while Cernak won't cost the Lightning a ton (projections are around $2.5M), Cirelli will be a pricier player to re-sign.

This is why the Lightning placed Tyler Johnson and his $5M salary on waivers in early October (nobody bit). Between Johnson and/or someone like Alex Killorn, the Lightning may have to bribe a team to take on a contract, which would allow them to be salary cap compliant. And while that is the likeliest scenario, an offer sheet could make sense to a lot of teams.

The 23-year old Cirelli is a Swiss Army Knife of a player. He is one of the top defensive centers in the NHL and has a knack for scoring a big goal. In this past shortened season, he posted 16-28-44 in 68 games while finishing fourth in Selke Trophy voting, given to the best defensive forward. With Pierre-Luc Dubois (talkin' bout offer sheets...), Max Domi, and Cirelli, the Blue Jackets would immediately have one of the best center trios in the NHL. And in a center-heavy Eastern Conference, that's significant.    

Per a recent article from RawCharge, the Lightning's SB Nation affiliate, and using projections from Evolving-Hockey, Cirelli is projected at $5.8M AAV on a six-year contract. If the Blue Jackets were able to agree to similar terms, they would have the adequate draft pick compensation to make this move feasible. And while it would absolutely sting to not have a first or third (or second) round pick in next year's draft, the odds of the Blue Jackets drafting player(s) of Cirelli's ilk with any of those picks are low. Even for a GM like Jarmo Kekalinen, A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

RawCharge argued that the Blue Jackets wouldn't be able to afford Cirelli due to salary cap restrictions. Ironically, I believe it's more likely that the organization would be unable to afford him in terms of real dollars, with the pandemic's impact tightening owner's wallets across the league. In terms of their salary cap, the Blue Jackets are $9.2M under the ceiling. Assuming Dubois signs for somewhere in the neighborhood of $7M, again thanks to Evolving-Hockey's projections, the Blue Jackets would indeed be over the salary cap in a theoretical Cirelli ($5.8M) offer sheet world. However, in the days leading up to the season, the club would be able to send Elvis Merzlikins $4M), who is waivers exempt, to the AHL in a paper transaction. Then the club could place Brandon Dubinsky (and his $5.8M salary) on Long-Term Injury Reserve (LTIR). Once Dubinsky's contract is off the books, the club could "call up" Merzlikins, and, poof, they're roughly $2M under the salary cap.   

Would the Blue Jackets be a better team with Cirelli? Emphatically yes. Would it dramatically change their salary structure? Not this season, no, but it could put them in a bind heading into the Seattle Expansion Draft, and the last time the Blue Jackets went into an expansion draft tight against the cap, they bribed the Vegas Golden Knights to take David Clarkson with payment of a first-round pick (oh yeah, and they also got William Karlsson). Then there's Cirelli, himself. Would he have any interest in leaving Tampa Bay for Columbus? My guess would be no, but crazier things have happened. 

At the end of the day, it's an unlikely scenario, namely because offer sheets are like unicorns. The draft pick compensation is steep (though I'd argue a first and third for Cirelli is more than fair), GM's perceive that it hurts their reputation around the NHL, and the player himself has to agree to the new terms. Still, it's the GM's job to use every avenue to make his team better. While offer sheeting Cirelli may make Kekalainen an unpopular person in Tampa Bay, it would make the Blue Jackets a drastically better team.

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