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Dissecting free agency

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

July 1st is Canada Day for some, the start of NHL free agency for many others.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you fall into group B and when free agency officially opens this Friday at 9 a.m. PST, you’ll be glued to a TV, computer or phone awaiting word on who goes where for how long and for how much.

Free agency is a major event in the NHL, but I’ll admit that before my pal Google and I rendezvoused earlier today, I didn’t fully understand it. Why is Chris Higgins an unrestricted free agent, while Jannik Hansen falls under the category of restricted?

And who qualifies for a qualifying offer and who gets offered an offer sheet?

And what’s the deal with arbitration?

All this and more in the Complete Canucks Guide to Free Agency.

The frenzy begins July 1st at 9 a.m. PST and with the exception of a weeklong holiday roster freeze over the Christmas break, free agency runs until the trade deadline, which is typically at the end of February or the beginning of March.

As of Friday morning contracts could potentially be offered to 600 players, according to TSN; 386 players are unrestricted free agents (184 in the west and 202 in the east), while 214 are restricted free agents (103 in the east, 111 in the west).

There is a lot of wheeling and dealing to be done, just remember that it’s not like swapping hockey cards back in the day, there is much to consider in deciding whether a team re-signs a player or not, including the salary cap. Luckily Laurence Gilman, Vancouver’s VP of hockey operations and assistant general manager, is the man responsible for, among other things, the development of the club’s strategic salary cap plan and we don’t have to worry about it.

When a player between the ages of 18 and 21 enters the NHL, he is signed to an entry-level contract for his first three seasons. Players who are 22 or 23-years-old are tagged as entry level for two years, those 24-years-old carry the status for single season.

When one is no longer an entry-level player, they become a restricted free agent so long as they are under the age of 27 and have not played in the league for seven years.

The Canucks currently boast five unrestricted free agents, headlined by forward Jannik Hansen. Victor Oreskovich, Macgregor Sharp, Sergei Shirokov and Lee Sweatt round out a group that included Maxim Lapierre until Wednesday afternoon when Vancouver signed him to two-year deal.

An unrestricted free agent is any player who is at least 27-years-old or has at least seven years experience in the NHL, whose contract has expired.

Every team is able to privately negotiate deals with their UFAs until July 1st when they become able to talk and sign with any team.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, if a team loses an unrestricted free agent to another team, it’s too bad so sad; in the past the team losing a player would receive compensation in the way of draft picks.

Vancouver has 13 unrestricted free agents set to test the market this Friday if they don’t reach a deal with the Canucks prior to that. Of the group of nine forwards, three defencemen and a goalie, nine suited up for the Canucks at least once during the 2010-11 season, led by Raffi Torres who played 80 games.

In order to retain negotiating rights to a restricted free agent, a team must present a qualifying offer to the player. If, for one reason for another, no qualifying offer is made, the player then becomes an unrestricted free agent, while if a player simply rejects the qualifying offer, he retains his status as a restricted free agent.

Don't worry, it doesn't make sense to me either.

There are rules for the amount of money involved in a qualifying offer, but I am nowhere near qualified to discuss dollars. To me it’s all mumbo-jumbo and don’t make any cents.

In 2006 the Canucks nearly lost Ryan Kesler to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Broad Street Bullies inked Kesler, who was a restricted free agent qualified by Vancouver, to an offer sheet that the Canucks had to turn around and match to keep him.

Offer sheets are, in essence, a contracted negotiated between a restricted free agent and a different team than he is currently a part of. If a team tries to snipe a player, like the Flyers did in attempting to land Kesler, the current team has seven days to match the offer or let the player go.

A player that has agreed to a qualifying offer or has chosen to go to salary arbitration is not eligible for an offer sheet.

Contract disputes are settled in salary arbitration, which is basically a hearing where a player and team each propose a salary for the upcoming season. An unbiased third party then decides the player’s salary for the upcoming season.

There are two types of salary arbitration, player-elected and club-elected; players opting to go this route have until 2 p.m. PST on July 5 to notify the NHL, while teams have until 2 p.m. PST on July 6 to choose arbitration.

The deadline for salary arbitration decisions to be rendered is August 6.

While these hearings could potentially get messy, most end with no bitterness between parties.

The most recent example of a Canucks player opting for salary arbitration was Mason Raymond, who went to court with Vancouver this past summer.

Click here to read the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement

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