An Idiots Guide To NHL Free Agency

Yesterday was an important day in the NHL, and it may have passed you by without you even knowing. It was RFA qualifying day, and it’s the biggest day in the offseason aside from free agency day (which begins 1 July at 12:00EST).

But with the murky technicalities and legal jargon (“legalese”) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), one can become mightily confused on just how free agency works in the NHL. Never fear; I’m here to help.

I must pause here and provide a disclaimer of sorts. The CBA, while intriguing to a fellow such as myself, is boring to most people. It is, after all, a legal document. Those are never exciting. I’ll do my best to run through things and keep you, the reader, interested (or at least awake).

How NHL Free Agency Works

The first thing one needs to understand regarding NHL free agency is just who they are dealing with. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of free agents: restricted free agents (RFA) and unrestricted free agents (UFA). For the sake of this article I’m going to focus on one group of the former (yes, each type of free agent has several “groups” within). The group I will be focusing on is Group 2 restricted free agents.

So what exactly makes a player a RFA? The answer is complicated, but simply put a player becomes a RFA at the end of his current contract based upon two factors: age, and number of years of professional experience they have. Here’s what the CBA has to say:

10.2 (a) Restricted Free Agents. Group 2 Players and Free Agents. As used in this Section 10.2, “age,” including “First SPC Signing Age” means a Player’s age on September 15 of the calendar year in which he signs an SPC regardless of his actual age on the date he signs such SPC.

Let’s say that Player X signs his first pro contract in 2009 and his birthday is 26 July 1990. His “age” for the purposes of the CBA is 19. Now let’s say that Player Y also signs a contract in 2009, but his birthday is October 28, 1989. His “age” for the purposes of the CBA is also 19, because he will still be 21 as of September 15.

The next big question is what constitutes a year of professional experience. The answer is simple: any player age 18 or 19 by 15 September 2011 must play in 10 NHL games in order to complete a year of professional experience. A player age 20 as of 15 September 2011(or any player who is 19 as of 15 September 2011 but turns 20 before the end of the year) must compete in 10 professional games in a single season in order to have completed a year of professional experience. What’s the difference? “Professional” includes both NHL and AHL games.

So now that you know what defines “age” and a “year of professional experience”, how does one calculate when a player becomes a RFA at the expiration of their current contract? Well, this is one of those moments where the CBA is kind enough to provide a chart.

First SPC Signing Age Eligible for Group 2 Free Agency
18-21 3 years professional experience
22-23 2 years professional experience
24 or older 1 year professional experience

Figure out a player’s age and how many years of professional experience you have and even you can figure out if they’re a Group 2 RFA!

Now that you are in a position of knowing which player is an RFA, it is only natural to move onto the next step of understanding just exactly what does on with qualifying offers. I’m not going to get into what constitutes a qualifying offer mostly for the sake of keeping you awake. I’m going to stick purely to procedure. Here’s more from the CBA:

10.2 (a) (ii) Restricted Free Agents. In order to receive a Right of First Refusal or Draft Choice Compensation (at the Prior Club’s option) with respect to a Restricted Free Agent, the Prior Club of a Restricted Free Agent must tender to the Player, no later than 5:00 p.m. New York time on the later of June 25 or the first Monday after the Entry Draft of the final year of the Player’s SPC, a “Qualifying Offer”, which shall be an offer of an SPC, for one League Year, which is subject to salary arbitration if such Player is otherwise eligible for salary arbitration in accordance with Section 12.1, on at least the following terms and conditions:

That entire paragraph is literally just a deadline. Qualifying offers must be given by the players’ current team by 5:00 p.m. EST on June 25 or the Monday after the NHL Entry Draft (whichever is later). Since the first Monday after the 2011 NHL Entry Draft was 27 June, that was the date that qualifying offers must have been submitted.

The CBA has one last thing to say. It’s alright though; I have the last word here.

10.2 Restricted Free Agents. A Qualifying Offer shall not be open for acceptance prior to July 1. If a Qualifying Offer meeting the above requirements is timely made, the Prior Club shall have a Right of First Refusal, exercisable in accordance with Section 10.4 below.

In case you think you’re misreading that statement, I will confirm your suspicions. A qualifying offer can’t be turned into a contract until 1 July. But there is no need to worry. Once a player is “qualified” (meaning they’ve been given a qualifying offer by their current team) they cannot be picked up by another team after 1 July, as they will remain a RFA. Another way to disallow other teams from providing offers to an RFA is to go to arbitration (which is something else I will refrain from discussing).

Take a look at the following graph. It sums up free agent statuses given different circumstances.

Player Prior to 1 July July 1, 12:00 EST & Later
RFA, Qualified RFA RFA
RFA, Sent to Arbitration RFA RFA
RFA, Unqualified RFA UFA

You now know what makes a Group 2 RFA. You know what a team has to do to qualify a player. This chart should be rather self-explanatory. To put things in Flyers terms:

  • Wayne Simmonds is a qualified RFA. Even after free agency starts on 1 July, he will remain a RFA.
  • Dan Carcillo, is an unqualified RFA. At this point, any team can extend him an offer so long as the Flyers agree and are compensated properly per the CBA. If he remains unsigned at noon on 1 July, he becomes an UFA.
  • Darroll Powe’s rights were traded to the Minnesota Wild in accordance with the proper CBA-dictated compensation from the Wild. He has since been given a qualifying offer by the club, meaning that even after 1 July, he will remain a RFA.

How does compensation work? Check the chart.

$660,000 or below None
Over $660,000 to $1 million Third Round
Over $1 million to $2.0 million Second Round
Over $2.0 million to $3.0 million First Round + Third Round
Over $3.0 million to $4.0 million First Round + Second Round + Third Round
Over $4.0 million to $5.0 million 2 First Rounds + Second Round  + Third Round
Over $5 million 4 First Rounds

If this teaches you anything, it’s that the CBA is a confusing entity. Hopefully you have learned something in reading this. After all, the more you know…