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MELTZER'S 411: The Frenzy that is Free Agency

What could happen during this year's shopping day in the NHL

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Every year on July 1, there is a frenzy of National Hockey League teams signing unrestricted free agents (UFAs). The most prominent names on the open market frequently -- but not always -- get snapped up on the opening day of "free agency season." 

With each successive day, the volume of signings decreases until it slows to a trickle. 

The deeper into free agency season that it gets, the more the leverage shifts from a seller's market to a buyer's market. By late July and onward into training camp in September, most signings fall in the "bargain" category.

Here is a brief overview of how the process works for both unrestricted and restricted free agents, and the key dates involved:

 

June 23: The day after the conclusion of the NHL Entry Draft (June 21-22) marks the start of a pre-free agency period in which impending unrestricted free agents are permitted to meet and negotiate with teams other than their current club. Prior to that date, the current team holds exclusive negotiating rights. The open "free agent courting" period at the end of June was created as part of the CBA signed in 2013. Before then, a player's current team had to give permission for a UFA to talk contract with a new team prior to July 1.

The Flyers trade earlier this week that sent a 2019 fifth-round pick to the Winnipeg Jets for impending unrestricted free agent center Kevin Hayes transferred the exclusive negotiation window from Winnipeg to Philadelphia. 

Most times the Flyers have taken the route of pre-emptively acquiring an impending UFA's negotiation rights, they have successfully been able to sign him before he became a free agent: Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell from Nashville in 2007, Ilya Bryzgalov from Phoenix in 2011, Mark Streit from the New York Islanders in 2013. 

However, in June 2010, the Flyers were unsuccessful in convincing impending UFA defenseman Dan Hamhuis to sign after acquiring his negotiating rights from Pittsburgh. The Flyers then traded Hamhuis' rights to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Pittsburgh was also unable to convince him to sign). The British Columbia native, whose heart was set on signing with the Vancouver Canucks, did so officially on July 1, 2010.

 

June 24: Deadline for NHL teams to extend qualifying offers to prospective restricted free agents (RFAs). By doing so, the club retains matching rights if the player signs an offer sheet with another NHL team. Failure to tender a qualifying offer changes the player's status from RFA to UFA, and the player is free to sign with any other team with no compensation to his former team. 

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) sets for the following requirements for qualifying offers:

  • Players who earned less that $660,000 during the 2018-19 season must receive a qualifying offer of 110 percent of their salary from last season.
  • Players who earned between $660,000 and $1,000,000 in 2018-19 must receive a qualifying offer of 105 percent of last season's salary.
  • Players who earned more than $1 million must receive a 100 percent qualifying offer.

Although some restricted free agents simply accept their qualifying offer and sign a contract accordingly, it is more common for the qualifying offer to be a formality in the negotiation process. 

 

July 1: Free agency season begins for both unrestricted and restricted free agents. A seven-year term limit for UFA contracts was created in 2013. There are four different ways that a player can become a UFA. Once the calendar flips to July 1, there is no practical difference between most of the categories. However, it can be useful to know the standards for becoming a UFA.

The most common way to become a UFA is via the so-called "27-or-7" standard: being age 27 or older and/or having played at least seven seasons in the NHL. Players who meet these requirements are called Group 3 free agents.

The second-most common category of unrestricted free agents is called Group 6: Any Player who is age 25 or older who has completed three (3) or more professional seasons, whose standard player contract has expired and: (i) in the case of a Player other than a goaltender, has played less than 80 NHL Games, or (ii) in the case of a goaltender, has played less than 28 NHL Games (for the purpose of this definition, a goaltender must have played a minimum of thirty (30) minutes in an NHL Game to register a game played)."

Another UFA category, Group 5, still exists in the CBA, but is obsolete in practical terms in today's NHL. This category grants UFA rights to a player who never previously had UFA rights, has completed 10 professional seasons (minor league plus NHL) and, in the final year of his expiring deal, did not earn more than the leaguewide average salary. 

Apart from non-tendered RFAs, the final UFA category pertains to prospects who have passed through the NHL Entry Draft and went unselected. The latter topic will be covered in a separate article, pertaining to the rules around the NHL Draft and the signing of players to entry-level contracts.

 

July 5: Deadline for restricted free agents to request salary arbitration. Teams can also ask for salary arbitration but must file within 48 hours after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final. RFAs involved in team-initiated arbitration received the right to negotiate an offer-sheet with another team through the end of business on July 5.

When a player files for arbitration, he forgoes his RFA status, and awaits an arbitration hearing. Cases are typically heard in late July to early August. The team and the player can negotiate right up to the time of the hearing, and can cancel the hearing if an agreement is reached.

Typically, arbitration-eligible players must have four years of NHL experience. However, the waiting period rules are different for players who signed their first NHL contract after the age of 20.

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