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MELTZER'S 411: Drafting Rights

Why certain players have different rights when selected (or not selected) in the NHL Draft

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

The National Hockey League's rules for Entry Draft eligibility, duration of hold players' rights, American Hockey League eligibility and the workings of the so-called "Slide Rule" for prospects signed to entry-level contracts make the NHL's system one of the more complicated sets of rules of any pro sport. 

Many casual fans -- and even some in the media -- find the regulations confusing. 

With the 2019 NHL Draft just a few weeks away and the offseason underway for all but the Stanley Cup finalists, here's a basic review of how the various rules work. 

ELIGIBILITY 

The majority of players in the 2019 NHL Draft are either currently 18 years old or will turn 18 by Sept. 15, 2019. However, any previously undrafted and/or unsigned born between January 1, 1999 and September 15, 2001 is eligible for selection in this year's draft. Players born after Sept. 15, 2001 -- even if it's by a day or two, and regardless of current ability level -- must wait until the 2020 Draft to be eligible.

Draft-eligible players who narrowly missed the birth date cutoff the previous year are sometimes deemed "late birthday" prospects. For example, Nolan Patrick's Sept. 19, 1998 birth date made him ineligible for the 2016 NHL Draft by a mere four days, although he'd have been a certain first-round pick even that year. A year later, the Flyers selected Patrick with the second overall pick.

When scouts assess players for the draft, age is one of the factors they look at, albeit as a secondary consideration. A late birthday Draft prospect could be nearly a full year older than the youngest player taken in the same Draft class. Again using Patrick as an example, he will turn 21 during training camp this year whereas fellow Flyers 2017 first-round pick just turned 20 on May 14, 2019. Nevertheless, both were first-time eligible players in last year's Draft. 

It is not uncommon for players who are passed over in their first NHL Draft eligible year to re-enter the Draft pool and be selected the next year. A prominent example with recent Flyers ties is Wayne Simmonds. 

Playing at the junior A level in 2005-06, he went unselected in the 2006 NHL Draft. One year later, after a season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Owen Sound Attack, the Los Angeles Kings selected Simmonds in the second round (61st overall) of the 2007 Draft. 

 

DURATION

The signing window for a drafted player depends on the junior or European league that holds his rights in the season leading up to his NHL Draft eligibility. The rules break down as follows:

1) 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. 

The key date for such players is June 1. Still-unsigned CHL players selected in the 2017 NHL Draft had their NHL rights expire on June 1, 2019. 

This year, the Flyers did not lose the rights to any players via this rule. That is because all of the players drafted from CHL leagues in 2017 -- Patrick, Frost, Isaac Ratcliffe, Matthew Strome and Maksim Sushko -- were already under entry-level NHL contract. Last June, the Flyers lost the rights to OHL forward Anthony Salinitri, whom Philadelphia selected in the 6th round of the 2016 Draft.

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. For example, although the Flyers drafted Noah Cates in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft, the team still has three years to sign him because he played a year in the USHL before playing his freshman NCAA season with national champion Minnesota Duluth in 2018-19.

The same five-year rule would also apply to a player who immediately attends college the season after the NHL but subsequently drops down to a lower level to get more ice time and development opportunity. Specifically, this applies to Flyers 2018 first-round pick Jay O'Brien, who is leaving Providence College after one season. He will still have three years of NCAA eligibility remaining come the 2020-21 season, and the Flyers' signing window was adjusted accordingly. 

The key date for unsigned college draftees is the Aug. 15 following the completion of their senior season. As pertains to the Flyers, it means that the organization will have until Aug. 15, 2020 to sign 2016 second-round pick Wade Allison (Western Michigan) and 2016 sixth-round selection Tanner Laczynski (Ohio State) following their senior year in 2019-20. If unsigned by that date, the players become unrestricted free agents. 

For players drafted from European countries, the signing window depends on the age at which the player is drafted and whether his home country's hockey federation has a transfer agreement with the NHL. 

In the case of 18-year-old players (as defined by the aforementioned birthday cutoffs) selected from organizations in Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic or other nations that have a transfer agreement with the NHL, there is a four-year window to sign the draftee. June 1 of the fourth year is the cutoff. Thereafter, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. 

As pertains to the Flyers, the four-year window rule for Swedish Hockey League affiliated players is why the organization was able to wait three years to sign left winger Oskar Lindblom (drafted in 2014, signed in 2017) and goaltender prospect Felix Sandström (drafted in 2015, signed in 2018) three years after their respective selection in the NHL Drafts. The same applies to Czech forward David Kase (drafted in 2015, signed in 2018). 

Drafted in the 5th round of the 2016 NHL Draft as one of the youngest eligible players in the draft class (born Sept. 4, 1998; 11 days ahead of the birth date cutoff), defense prospect Linus Högberg has not yet been signed to an entry-level contract. The Flyers will hold his rights until June 1, 2020, before he can become an unrestricted free agent. 

In the case of a players drafted from the Russian Federation, NHL teams hold the players rights indefinitely. That is because the Russian Hockey Federation does not have a formal transfer agreement with the NHL and transfers must be conducted on a case-by-case basis. There is, however, a non-interference agreement between the NHL and KHL that teams in one league must honor as valid still-active contracts in the other league.  

Once a Russian player's obligations to his Russian parent team are fulfilled, he is free to sign with an NHL team. This can come about either after his Russian league contract expires or an early release is negotiated. In the case of the Flyers, Russian federation draftees German Rubtsov (1st round, 2016), Mikhail Vorobyev (4th round, 2015) and incoming Russian/Belarusian goaltending prospect (3rd round, 2017) are all now under NHL entry-level contracts. 

 

AGE-ELIGIBILITY

The AHL's age eligibility rules are a frequent source of confusion. It is often stated that players under the age of 20 are ineligible for the AHL. This is only partially true, because it pertains specifically to players drafted from the OHL, WHL and QMJHL. The age cut-off does NOT apply to players that NHL teams sign out of the NCAA or European leagues.  

There is a back story to these rules, which date back to the merger of the NHL and World Hockey Association in 1979 and the lowering of the NHL Draft eligibility age from 20 to 18. The WHA allowed certain under-age players to play in the circuit -- including the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mark Howe -- ahead of their Draft eligibility on the rival NHL. 

When the NHL and WHA merged, there was a concern that lowering the Draft age would be ruinous to the CHL (in many cases, NHL owners also had financial stakes in junior teams, but there was also a concern that too many players would be taken early from the NHL's primary source of drafted talent and stashed in the AHL to develop). 

As a means of compromise, a rule was set that 18-year-old and 19-year-old CHL affiliated players could play in the NHL following their Draft selection (if they were advanced enough to earn a roster spot) but could not play in the AHL until there were 20. The same rule still applies 40 years later, although there have periodically been proposals to alter the system.  

The AHL age rule has never applied to players signed out of Europe or the NCAA. Where it gets especially confusing is where it pertains to drafted and signed players whose rights belong to European teams but who are loaned out by their European teams to clubs in the CHL in the season immediately leading up to their NHL Draft year. 

Which set of AHL age rules apply, the CHL or European signee rules? The answer is that the European rules (no age restriction) applies. That is how Toronto Maple Leafs 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Sandin was able to play in the AHL in 2018-19 despite having spent the 2019-20 season in the Ontario Hockey League. 

 

THE SLIDE RULE

Even if a player is under NHL entry-level contract (which, by rule, is a three-season deal for 18-year-old and 19-year-old signees), the first year of the contract does not "burn" unless the player spends 10 or more games in the NHL. Until that point, the NHL team has the option of re-assigning (also referred to as "sliding" or "loaning") the player back to his junior or European team and deferring the first season of the entry-level contract for another year.

For CHL draftees, who are not AHL eligible until they are 20, this rule is pretty straightforward and well understood once they return to their junior team. For example, the NHL contracts for Frost, Ratcliffe, Strome and Sushko all "slid" back to the OHL during the 2018-19 season. All will have the first year of their contracts burn in 2019-20, regardless of whether they play in the NHL, AHL or even the ECHL. 

Things get a little more confusing for players signed from European federations and the college hockey ranks. As pertains to European players, the slide rule is directly parallel to the AHL age rule. NHL teams have the option of sliding a contracted European player either to European team or to the AHL. 

A Flyers-related example: In 2014-15, a then 19-year-old Robert Hägg came over from Sweden to play his first North American pro season. Although he spent the entire year in the AHL with the Phantoms, the slide rule applied and the first year of his NHL entry-level contract did not apply until the 2015-16 season.

With collegiate players, signing a pro contract at any age immediately forfeits all remaining NCAA eligibility. Under NCAA rules, the player is no longer considered an amateur athlete as of that date. This is due to the signing bonus provision that accompanies an entry-level NHL deal even if the contracted base salary does not kick in until a future season.

If a player signed out of college would otherwise fall under the NHL's slide rule, an NHL team has the option of sliding him to the AHL as an 18-year-old or 19-year-old just as it would an European draftee of the same age. This would apply up to a point that the player dresses in 10 NHL games, whereupon his entry-level deal would kick in even if he's assigned to an AHL farm team.

Specific to the Flyers, 2018 first-round pick Joel Farabee is slide-rule eligible in 2019-20 if he plays in the AHL for the Phantoms. Even if he plays 9 or fewer NHL games for the Flyers next season and is subsequently returned to the Phantoms, the first year of his entry-level deal will not burn until the 2020-21 season.

Once a player turns 20, the slide rule no longer applies even if a contracted player is loaned a European team or spends an over-age season with a CHL team on loan from an NHL team. 

A Flyers-related example: goalie prospect Sandström spent the 2018-19 season on loan to Swedish team HV71 but the first year of his entry-level contract with the Flyers burned because he had already aged out of the slide rule. The 2019-season will count as the second year of Sandström's contract even though it will be his first year playing pro hockey in North America.

 

ROOKIE FREE AGENTS

From time to time, training camp tryout invitees who slipped through the cracks of the most recent Entry Draft (or sometimes two or three drafts) impress enough in camp to be signed to entry-level contracts. There are rules for which players are and are not eligible for such arrangements.

Basically, it comes down to league affiliation and signing date. Undrafted players whose rights belong to CHL teams are eligible -- even at age 18 or 19 -- to sign NHL entry level contracts as unrestricted free agents. NHL teams are free to invites such players to summer development camp in July and/or the rookie and main NHL roster camps in September. A signing decision must be made by a set date when their CHL season begins. 

Flyers-related examples: The Flyers signed Phil Myers, who went unselected in the 2015 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract in Sept. 2015. Myers, of course, subsequently went on to emerge as a fine NHL prospect and made his Flyers debut this past season. Last year, the Flyers signed undrafted 18-year-old WHL-affiliated Russian defenseman Yegor Zumula to an entry-level contract after he impressed as a tryout player in their September camp.

Once an undrafted player is signed to an NHL entry-level contract, the rules become identical to those for drafted players under contract. Specifically, the AHL age eligibility and slide-rule provisions apply on the same basis. Myers, for instance, slid back to the Quebec League in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and played his first pro season in 2017-18. Zamula slid back to the WHL this past season and is likely to do so again in 2019-20.

In the majority of cases, undrafted free agent tryouts are released back to their CHL junior team without receiving an NHL contract. That closes the door on signing an NHL deal that season.

Regardless of how such a player fares back with his junior team, the NHL team that originally invited to camp cannot change its mind and sign him. Instead, the player either goes back into the pool of eligible players for the next year's NHL Draft if he is still age-eligible for the NHL Draft at that point. If not, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. In many cases, players in this category will play an over-age junior season and then try one last time to find a pro contract (whether via NHL entry-level, AHL, European, etc.).

Lastly, this set of rules pertains only to players whose rights are owed by a CHL team. It does not pertain to CHL import players who are loan from European parent organizations or who spent their draft-eligible year in Europe. 

The Flyers once fell victim to this very confusing provision. In Sept. 2011, the NHL organization invited to training camp an undrafted Czech forward named Tomas Hyka. By then, Hyka was affiliated with the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques as an Import Draft recruit. Hyka showed promise in camp and the Flyers were interested in signing him to an entry-level deal to secure his rights.

However, when Philly attempted to sign him, they were informed by the NHL that's Hyka's affiliation with Czech-based team Mlada Boleslav during the previous season made him ineligible to be signed without being selected in the NHL Draft. As a result, Hyka went back into the 2012 NHL Draft pool, where he was eventually taken by the LA Kings. Years later, Hyka spent portions of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season in the NHL with the Vegas Golden Knights.

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