So you're thinking that one of the Caps' Restricted Free Agents is going to sign an offer sheet with another team and you're wondering whether or not the Caps should match. You're going over and over all sorts of hypotheticals in your head, all of which come back to one question: "Are the Caps better off with an overpaid Player X or the unspent money and compensatory draft picks?"
Let me make that questions slightly easier on you. Take the picks out of the equation - they're likely not worth much.
To begin with, let's look at exactly what picks we're talking about (dollar values represent the average annual salary of the contract the RFA signs):
Below $863,156: No compensation
$863,156-$1,307,812: One third-round pick
$1,307,812-$2,615,625: One second-round pick
$2,615,625-$3,923,437: One first- and one third-round pick
$3,923,437-$5,231,249: One first-, one second- and one third-round pick
$5,231,249-$6,539,062: Two first-, one second- and one third-round pick
$6,539,062 or more: Four first-round picks
Now let's throw out all the second and third round compensatory picks. Why? They're crap.
When this past season ended, there were more players on NHL rosters who were never drafted or who were drafted in rounds that don't even exist anymore than players who were drafted in the second round, and more than twice as many of those first group of players then players who were drafted in the third round. [Source]
From the 1998 draft (ten years out sounds like a fine draft to use), 36 of the 59 second and third round picks (61%) have played less than one full season's worth of NHL games, and only nine of the 59 (15%) have played more than four seasons' worth of NHL games (we'll perhaps generously call players who have played at least four seasons' worth of games "legitimate NHLers" the rest of the way). From the 1997 draft, those numbers are 76% and 7%, respectively, and from the 1999 draft, those numbers are 72% and 9%, respectively. For the three year stretch, 69% of the players drafted in the second and third rounds have played fewer than 82 NHL games and only 10% (19 players total) are legitimate NHLers, having played more than four seasons' worth of NHL games.
Bringing the analysis a little closer to home, the Caps have drafted 24 players in the second and third rounds in the past ten drafts (2008 excluded). The total number of NHL games played for these 24? 599. Matt Pettinger has played 324 of those and Nathan Paetsch has played 123 (which one could reasonably say were really played as a 2003 Buffalo seventh round pick and not as a 2001 Caps second rounder), meaning that the other 22 Caps second and third round picks over that span - 92% of the 2nd and 3rd rounders - have averaged fewer than seven NHL games per man.
But since picks (especially those after the first round) take a while to mature, let's look at the ten-year span from 1990-1999 (arbitrary, and mostly under a different front office, but humor me). The Caps made 22 second and third round picks, and those players combined (not one is still active in the NHL) to play 1,948 NHL games, with 1991 third round pick Steve Konowalchuk playing 790 of those and 1996 second rounder Jan Bulis playing 552. Even including those guys, that's an 88.5 NHL games average (just over one season's worth) per pick, and one pick in each of the second and third rounds over a decade of drafting that panned out.
The bottom line here, both from the League-wide analysis and the Caps' experience over two different decade-long stretches, is that a player picked in second or third round of the NHL draft has, at best, around a 10% chance of playing at least one full season's worth of NHL games.
Now on to the first rounders. In the ten-year span from 1990-99, 53% of the players drafted in the top-30 (not all first-rounders, mind you, but top-30 talent is top-30 talent) have played more than four NHL seasons' worth of games, but 30% have played less than one full NHL season. [Note: for the purposes of this analysis, Nick Boynton, who was drafted in the first round twice and with whom I just realized I share a birthday - is treated as two different players; one who never played in the NHL and the other who has the 437 career games played] That "miss" rate goes way down when you're talking about top-10 picks, of course, and 88% of the 100 players fitting that description have played more than 82 NHL games, with 74% of the hundred playing more than four seasons' worth (granted, this includes guys like Bryan Allen, Andrei Nazarov, Drake Berehowsky and Mark Bell, so don't get too excited).
So there's slightly better than a 50/50 chance, all else equal, that a team will get a legitimate NHLer (as defined above) with a generic first round pick, but a three-in-ten chance of getting a dud. And while the balance shifts dramatically when we're talking about top-ten picks, even then, they're not all Alexes and Sids. Which leads to our next point, which is the fool's gambit of trying to figure out the true value of a first round pick by predicting where the team from whom the pick comes will finish in the standings.
When Brian Burke didn't match the offer sheet to which the Oilers signed Dustin Penner last summer, the Anaheim GM's decision was widely hailed not only for recognizing that Penner ain't worth $4.25 million per year, but also because Edmonton was surely headed for the lottery, so the compensatory picks would be that much better. Then Edmonton went out and finished 19th in the League, giving Anaheim a nice pick, but not a top-10 pick, and not what they might have hoped for or expected.
Since the League expanded to 30 teams for the 2000-01 season, only 13 times has a team finished in the bottom-five (a.k.a. Lotteryville) in consecutive seasons, and only twice since the lockout ushered in the new "age of parity." Over that same span (since 2000-01), teams have only had consecutive bottom-ten finishes (and thus top-ten picks) 37 times (many of which were recent expansion teams), and 13 times since the lockout. Percentage-wise, this tells us that since the League has had 30 teams, a team followed up a bottom-five finish with another bottom-five finish approximately 36% of the time (and only 20% since the lockout) and answered a bottom-ten finish with another bottom-ten finish 63% of the time (65% post-lockout).
Beyond those numbers, at times it's been no great surprise that a team has had consecutive down years (the Caps and Penguins during their rebuilds, for example), but it's becoming less predictible all the time. Fourteen teams haven't finished in the bottom ten in the League since the lockout. Six teams have finished in that group just once, and six teams have done so twice. Eighteen haven't finished in the bottom five since the lockout, nine have done so once and three teams have done so twice. All of this is to say that in a League that, since the work stoppage, has seen Pittsburgh go from 29th to 9th, Philly go from 30th to 10th, and three other double-digit standings leaps forward all in the span of one season, today's cellar dweller is tomorrow's playoff contender (unless, of course, we're talking about Columbus or Florida, who have each finished in the bottom ten in every season since 2000-01).
The bottom line on first round picks, then, is that a generic first-round pick is around 50% likely to yield a legitimate NHLer (as we've defined that term above), and while the odds get markedly better if that pick is in the top ten, it's difficult in hockey's salary cap era to accurately predict whether a team that's currently down is going to stay down long (and it's a fairly safe bet that a team that is willing to part with first-round picks as compensation for signing an RFA expects to be on the rise sooner rather than later - you don't part with those picks if you're rebuilding).
The point of this ridiculously long-winded and dense discussion is that when it comes to deciding whether or not to match an RFA-signed offer sheet, a team shouldn't even think about the compensatory draft picks as anything more than a tie-breaker in the event that it's impossible to determine whether or not the salary fits into the team's overall salary structure (which it never is). As we've established, second and third round picks have an extremely low success rate attached to them, and first-rounders are by no means sure things. Still don't believe me? Try this little excercise: pick a random team, then pick any four-year stretch and see who was picked in that team's standings-based draft slot (i.e. 2005 doesn't count) in each of those years (and go ahead and report your findings in the comments for the rest of us to see).
This is not to say, of course, that a team should match any offer that one of its RFAs signs, but rather to say that the decision should be about the dollars, not the draft picks. If a GM is seriously weighing the latter, he likely flatters himself a bit much.
So when you're thinking about RFAs, do yourself a favor and forget about the non-monetary compensation. Focus on the salary. Leave the picks. Take the cannoli.