Draft Dodging: The NHL Needs To Fix Prospect Free Agency Rules

The league gets it completely right with Restricted Free Agents. Why not apply similar rules to drafted prospects?

August 15th just passed by, and similar to the date of July 1st, it is becoming a big day with regards to NHL free agency.

To those that aren’t yet familiar, August 15th is a specific date established within the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under certain circumstances within the CBA, after this date is when drafted prospects playing in the NCAA are able to evade the NHL team that originally selected them and hit the open free agency market.

Kevin Hayes did this in 2014, signing with the New York Rangers on August 20th of that year after being initially chosen by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Jimmy Vesey did it in 2016, also signing with the Rangers on the day of August 20th, despite being chosen by the Nashville Predators in 2012.

And now, in 2017, more prospects are following the same path — most notably Will Butcher and Alexander Kerfoot.

Butcher, 22, is an undersized two-way defensman. He is coming off of an incredible season, winning the NCAA National Hockey Championship with his Denver Pioneers club, while also picking up the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player along the way. He was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the 5th round, 123rd overall, in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

Kerfoot, 23, just finished up his senior year with Harvard, scoring 45 points in 36 games. The small playmaking center was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the 5th round, 150th overall, in 2012.

Despite the best efforts of these NHL teams in trying to sign the prospects that they initially drafted, both players are now, instead, free agents, courting contract offers from multiple suitors.

That has to be an awful sting for the Avalanche and the Devils, the organizations that finished, respectively, 30th and 28th overall in the league last season.

Talented prospects deciding that they don’t want to play for the losing clubs that drafted them...no matter how you try to justify it, that’s not supposed to happen in the NHL. Full stop.

It doesn’t matter if a prospect was drafted in the 1st round or the 7th, from North America or from Europe. The entire point of the NHL Entry Draft is to promote balance and parity in the league.

If good prospects decide that they simply don’t want to sign with the bad teams that drafted them, then that’s a serious problem.

The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy,  generally one of the best voices in the sport, wrote an article recently about how this is “business as usual” and that it’s not a big issue because it happens so rarely.

I’m sure that the rebuilding Avalanche and Devils disagree, as likely will any club that also loses a top prospect in this manner in the near future. A precedent has effectively been established, so it is safe to assume that other players will follow this same route as well. No organization is immune from the possibility of it happening.

So, how is this allowed to happen? The CBA is a complicated legal document to navigate, full of differing examples and detailed specifications. Anyone interested in exploring it can find the full thing here.

Generally speaking, NHL teams hold exclusive rights to their drafted prospects for four years after their initial draft, as outlined in Article 8.6, titled “Reserve List-Exclusive Rights.” There are, of course, some other odd exceptions to be found, but this is the brunt of the matter.

This outline is most convenient for NCAA-based players, who can play a full college career and steadily develop their abilities before turning pro. Players can go to school, play for four years, and then come out ready to find a team that they would prefer to play for.

The current edition of the CBA kicked in on September 16th, 2012, and is scheduled to last until September 15th of 2022 (unless either the league or the NHLPA exercise an early termination option that could end it in 2020).

In other words, a fix to this problem isn’t coming any time soon. What we can do until then, however, is discuss possible solutions.

What the NHL gets right with Restricted Free Agency

Luckily, the CBA outlines rules and guidelines for a different subsection that has ideas that can be applied here: Restricted Free Agency.

Restricted Free Agents are players that, generally speaking (it’s again complicated), are under the age of 25 when their contract expires. The main thing that makes them different from Unrestricted Free Agents is that these players are not allowed to negotiate with other NHL clubs so long as the team holding their rights offers them a “Qualifying Offer” before the outlined deadline.

So long as an NHL team tenders a Qualifying Offer to one of their RFAs, regardless of whether or not the player accepts, the team continues to exclusively hold that player’s rights. Players can choose to hold out, either for a better contract or for a trade, but if they don’t have a deal signed by December 1st (another date established within the CBA) then they are ineligible to play in the NHL for the remainder of that season.

There are, like the rest of the CBA, other complicated elements at play here, such as offer sheets (other teams offering up hefty packages of draft picks in exchange for players, which teams can choose to accept as compensation) but the main takeaway from RFA rules is this: teams don’t lose their young players to other teams for nothing. And that’s important for the parity of the entire league.

(Side note: there is a rule in the CBA right now about teams receiving compensation when 1st round picks leave for free agency, which the Blackhawks got for losing Hayes, but it’s only a 2nd round selection. That’s a step in the right direction, but not fair value).

Why can’t the rules for teams and their drafted prospects be changed in a similar manner to how they are written for RFAs?

As a rough example: if teams tender “qualifying offers” (or whatever terminology is used) to their chosen prospects, then they should maintain exclusive contract negotiation rights with those players until a solution is reached. Is such a solution not possible?

The Avalanche made contract offers to Butcher, just like the Devils did for Kerfoot. The fact that both of these teams will now lose these prospects, with no compensation in return, is a flaw in the way the league’s rules are currently written.

It will be years before this topic can be addressed, but it is one that the league should begin examining before that time comes.