With NHL training camps scheduled to open in mid-September, time is running out for some teams to sign their big-name restricted free agents. But although they are “restricted” the players are still unsigned and free to play elsewhere such as Europe and Russia if they don’t agree to terms with their NHL clubs.
Free agency can be confusing to some fans since there are unrestricted and restricted free agents. Players are eligible for unrestricted free agency when their contract runs out after turning 27 years old or playing in the NHL for a minimum of seven years. As for restricted free agents, it is ruled by a combination of their age when being signed to their first professional contract as well as their amount of experience in any of the world’s pro hockey leagues.
Those who ink their first contracts from the age of 18 to 21 will be restricted free agents following their first three seasons of pro experience. Players who first signed at 22 or 23 become restricted free agents with two years of pro experience and if signing your first pro deal at the age of 24 or older you qualify as a restricted free agent following the first year of experience.
In today’s NHL, most youngsters who are drafted end up signing a three-year deal known as an entry-level contract. This is a league-wide standard contract which is set at a specific amount of dollars. However, there are also one and two-year entry-level contracts and all players entering the league must sign one if they’re under the age of 25. The length of the contract depends on your age with shorter deals for older players. Typically, a drafted player will sign a three-year entry-level contract and will become a restricted free agent when it expires.
When the contract is over their NHL club has to give them a qualifying offer for a new one-year deal after the entry draft in June. This enables the team to retain negotiating rights with the player. If a team doesn’t send a qualifying offer then the player is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Depending on the player’s previous salary, qualifying offers must include a raise of five or 10 per cent unless they were making over $1 million a season. In this case, the qualifying offer has to be at least equal to the previous salary.
A player has the right to decline a qualifying offer and remain a restricted free agent. Those who turn the offer down can negotiate a new contract with the club but won’t be able to play in the NHL if they haven’t agreed to terms by December 1st. Restricted free agents are eligible to speak with other NHL clubs and allowed to sign an offer sheet with a team if one is received. If an offer sheet is signed, his club has the right to match it within seven days but isn’t allowed to trade him or negotiate a contract during this time.
If the offer sheet is matched and the player stays, his team isn’t allowed to trade him for a year. If an offer sheet isn’t matched, the team that signs the player must give up draft picks as compensation. The exact draft picks and the number of them are determined by the average annual dollar-size of the contract over five years . The more the contract is worth the more draft picks have to be given up. Restricted free agents can also sit out the season if they don’t sign or in some instances can have an arbitrator rule on their salary.
Restricted free agents who have played in the NHL for a minimum of four years or signed their first professional contract at 20 years of age or older are eligible to request salary arbitration. The player’s club also has the right to request arbitration in this case and their salary offer can be up to a maximum 15 per cent lower than the previous salary The team and player give the arbitrator a dollar amount for a salary and after hearing arguments from both sides the arbitrator will rule on the amount. If the ruling favours the player and the player requested arbitration, the team must decide within 48 hours if it wants to pay the salary or let the player qualify for unrestricted free agency by walking away from the deal.
If the team requested arbitration they can’t walk away and have to abide by the arbitrator’s decision.
When a player is scheduled for arbitration, no other clubs can sign him to an offer sheet however the player can still negotiate and sign with their own club if they hope to avoid arbitration. It’s not the easiest process to follow but it means there’s still a chance some of this summer’s top restricted free agents may sign before the season starts. However, if they haven’t inked a deal by December 1st they’re out of luck as far as the 2019/20 NHL campaign is concerned.