Sometimes, because a rule has been in place for a long time, it means that is has overcome the test of time. Other times though, it is outdated and due to be changed. That’s the case for the old unrestricted free agents rule for NHL drafted players. Many teams have lost quality prospects because they chose to re-enter the Draft or play their four years of College. While re-entering the Draft offers no guarantee for a young player’s destination, College players become completely free to sign wherever they want. The bottom line is teams are losing quality prospects for the benefit of others.
There are more teams in the NHL than ever so when you think about it, it would be to most College player’s benefit to wait and sign with which ever team they want while finishing their education. This way, they could go where they want. And we’re not only talking about US-born players here. Many Canadians choose the College way to the NHL by getting a full ride scholarship to get there, an education to fall back on if something was to happen to their hockey career.
Canadian Hockey League (OHL, WHL, QMJHL) Players: Teams that a draft a CHL player have two years to sign him to an entry-level contract before forfeiting the player’s NHL rights. The affected player can re-enter the NHL Draft and, if unselected, becomes an unrestricted free agent.
For collegiate and college-track players, NHL teams hold the rights to drafted prospects for the duration of their NCAA eligibility. In the case of a player who spends his draft-plus-year in an amateur junior A league such as the USHL before starting college, it could be a five-year signing window.
Teams that finished the lowest in the standings tend to pick sooner in the NHL Draft. Therefore, all things being equal, they have been odds at selecting the better players in each round. The NHL does that so bottom teams are not permanently stuck at the bottom of the standings. While there have been rule changes to the Draft over time, this formula has worked quite well.
When you have a good prospect who chooses to sacrifice a year of pro hockey by finishing College, he gets the benefit of being able to choose to sign with which ever team he wants. With the Entry Level Contract (ELC) salary cap, it’s not a matter of money offered. The player simply goes where he wants to play. How fair is it for the team that drafted him, who was awarded the benefit of selecting him before anyone else? How logical is that?
Two possible solutions
If the NHL really wants to fix this loop-hole, they will have to sit down and amend those rules. While there are possibly more options than that, I see two that would be rather easy to implement:
1- Change the age or amount of time teams have to sign prospects
This would be a blanket rule, no matter where the player plays. You are drafted in the NHL, the team that drafted you owns your rights, signed or not, for “x” amount of years, or until “y” age. But it has to be a couple of years after the four years of US College.
To avoid teams punishing players, an ELC has to have been presented to the player no later than by the end of his last year junior or College or, in the case of European players, by a certain age. If the player declines, then it’s on him if he sits. But it’s his team or nothing.
2- Make the College rule like Junior hockey
At the very least, change the rule for College players and match what is done with CHL players. Instead of being complete free agents, those who choose to play their final year of College should have to re-enter the Draft if they choose not to sign with the team that originally drafted them. It would be at least a bit of a deterrent as they would likely be selected by a weaker team, unlikely with the team they really want to play for.
The Canadiens’ prospect has absolutely little to no reason to sign with the Canadiens, merely weeks away from choosing to sign wherever he wishes. While it’s not impossible for him to sign with the team that drafted him and invested in sending development coaches to help him out in his development, it is very unlikely to happen.
Until the NHL decides to address this issue, something tells me that we will see more and more players choosing to finish College. If the NHL and NHLPA truly want to do what’s best for the league as a whole, meaning for the bottom teams or smaller markets, they will look into this matter as it’s an easy fix.