The legalese of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement and the myriad of different contract types and scenarios seemingly makes it crazy hard to figure out who can play where and how. There are 1-way contracts and 2-way contracts. There are players who are waiver exempt and players who must clear waivers. There are different rules for Canadian junior players, US college players and European professional players. And so on…
In this blog I will take a shot at sorting out the alphabet soup for how this all works and what it means for building the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes opening day roster.
The terminology and basic contract and player movement rules:
1-way versus 2-way contracts: This simply refers to whether a player has different pay scales for the AHL and NHL levels. For example, a player might have a 2-way contract that pays him $600,000 at the NHL level but only $90,000 at the AHL level. Or alternatively, a player might have a 1-way contract in which case, he earns the same $600,000 whether he is at the NHL level or the AHL level. This term has NOTHING to do with whether a player can be sent to the AHL. It just means that for a player on a 1-way contract, he basically gets his full NHL salary regardless of where he plays. 1-way versus 2-way contracts (and waiver status below) can impact the last few roster decisions. All things being equal, an NHL team is better off sending a player on a 2-way contract to the AHL instead of a player on a 1-way contract because they save on salary costs when a player on a 2-way contract earns less playing in the AHL.
Waivers required: Once players pay their dues in terms of years of experience, age and number of games played at the NHL level, they must clear waivers to be sent to the AHL. What this means is that before a player can be sent to the minor leagues, all of the other 30 NHL teams have the right to claim this player and assume his NHL contract. Importantly, the claiming team must keep the player at the NHL level or otherwise he will go back on waivers. This is how the Canes acquired Andrej Nestrasil last season. He started the season at the NHL level for Detroit. When Detroit tried to send him back to the AHL, the Canes claimed him off waivers for no cost. The intention of this rule is that once players pay their dues, they are given the opportunity to play at the NHL level if they are good enough to make any NHL team.
Waivers exempt: So how then do good young players like Ryan Murphy bounce back and forth from the NHL and AHL without being claimed by another team? It is because he is waivers exempt. Young players just entering the NHL and starting to rack up games played and years of NHL service are not required to clear waivers to go back and forth from the NHL to the AHL. This is because they have not yet reached the clip levels in terms of games played, years of service and age to require them to go through waivers. This will be true for Noah Hanifin this season and also most, if not all, of the Hurricanes players who will be making their NHL debuts if they make the team.
Rules for Canadian junior players: To protect the Canadian junior leagues and keep all of their best players from being drafted and sent to the AHL, the NHL has a special arrangement for players drafted out of Canadian junior leagues. For the first two years after a players draft year (usually when a player is 18 years old), an NHL team can keep a player ONLY if the team keeps him at the NHL level. If the team decides to ‘send him down’, Canadian junior players in those first two years must be returned to their junior team and cannot go to the AHL. In addition, once a player is returned to his junior team, he cannot be recalled until after his junior season is over. That is why it is common to see Canadian junior players start the season at the NHL level. It is because you cannot call them up later.
9-game ‘limit’ for Canadian junior players: There is actually no rule that stops an NHL team from keeping a Canadian junior player for 12 games or 40 games or whatever. The reason for the magical 9-game limit is about years of service requirements and the impact on when a player can become a free agent (and earn a bunch more). This is because 10 games is what is required to earn a year of service as an NHL player. This is important because 10 games played counts as a full year on the discounted 3-year entry level contract and also gets the player one year closer to free agent rights, which generally means a higher salary.
US college players: US college players CANNOT sign an NHL contract and then play college hockey. They would be a professional upon signing a contract and not eligible to play NCAA sports. So for US college players, things work differently than for Canadian junior players of the same age. Players who want to stay in college (or where the team wants them to stay there because they are not ready for professional hockey yet) cannot sign a contract. The NHL team keeps a player’s rights up until 4 years after drafting him (assuming the player is drafted as an 18-year-old which is most common). So basically, an NHL team that drafts a player when he is first eligible (at 18 years old and just entering college) has that player’s rights until his class would be graduating from college 4 years later. For players who are good enough and for whom the team and player want to expedite the path to the NHL, they sign a 3-year entry level deal (same as with Canadian junior players). For a US college player, this immediately ends his college career because he is then professional and not eligible per NCAA rules. These US players under NHL contract can then play in the NHL or the AHL (age does not matter like it does for Canadian junior players). Technically, these players could also play in Canadian juniors or the USHL though this is uncommon. If the player was to continue development at a lower level than the AHL, the player probably would have just stayed in college.
European players: European players (especially the young ones being drafted when first eligible at 18) are generally treated like US college players. They must sign a contract to play in the US. For players who are not ready for North American hockey AHL or NHL hockey or just have a preference to continue their development at professional leagues in Europe they can do so. The team that drafts them keeps their rights (much like US college players who do not sign contracts) for 4 years. This offers flexibility similar to US college players whereby players can continue development at home in Europe for up to 4 years without any pressure from the NHL team to make the jump to the US because of expiring rights. Things are a little bit different for older players drafted out of Europe. The short version is that the rights can be shorter for older players. The formulas for exactly how all of that works are bit beyond the intended scope of this blog.
Entry-level contracts: Again per the NHL CBA, young players who are drafted generally enter the league on a 3-year entry level contract. This contract is pretty much standard and formula-driven based on draft slot with virtually no room for negotiation. These contracts are bargains for the team. There are some bonuses that can escalate things somewhat, but the basic deal is a very modest sub $1M salary with a modest signing bonus. So even Connor McDavid is locked in at a modest base salary of $925,000 per year for three years before he gets the chance to negotiate something closer to what he is worth. An interesting feature in these entry-level contracts is that they can slide forward up to two years if a player does not play professionally. For Canadian junior players, it is possible to slide the first year of the contract forward if a player signs but then goes back to Canadian junior hockey instead of playing (more than 9 games) professionally. US college players do not actually sign contracts (they cannot or they would be professional and lose ability to play in the NCAA), but their contract sort of does the same thing when they stay in college, do not sign at all and then later sign for the same 3 years. So by signing and playing in either the AHL or NHL this season, Noah Hanifin will use up the 1st of 3 bargain years on his entry level deal. His contract could slide if he plays only 9 games in the NHL, but for Hanifin specifically that seems unlikely with the ability to freely float between the AHL and NHL.) Had Hanifin instead decided to play another year at Boston College, he would not have signed his 3-year entry level contract and would still have the full 3 years to go on it when he signed it next summer (or later). Canadian junior players like Haydn Fleury can sign their entry-level contract but they only use the 1st year of it if they play at least 10 games (NHL or AHL). So in the case of Fleury, if he does a 9-game trial at the NHL level this October and then goes back to juniors for the rest of the season, the Hurricanes will still have all 3 years of his inexpensive entry level deal left. If instead he plays 10 or more games in the NHL, he will have used up the 1st year of his 3-year entry level deal even he is later returned to juniors. Though there are differences for if a contract is signed, the effect is similar in that years of the entry level deal are only used if a player plays 10 or more games in the NHL.
Within the next few days, I will take a try at spelling out what all of this means specifically for building the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes opening day roster. I already drafted a graphic that shows all Canes players in the system and which of the above categories they fall into. You can find that on the Canes and Coffee Facebook page for now. If you are a new visitor there, please ‘like’ the page (not the graphic/post) to help us build a bigger following there.