A while ago, I asked several of you on Twitter if there would be any interest in some “Hockey 101” blog posts, and there was a positive response for this. Several topics were suggested, many of which require waiting until the start of the new season so that I am able to get some video footage to show. There are a few things, however, that I am able to step right up and knock out and, since we are rapidly approaching the free agent frenzy, I thought it would be best to start with the difference between unrestricted and restricted free agency.
Now, like so many other things in life, there are a lot of things that go into free agency that makes it rather confusing. For example, there are several types of “groups” of free agents with different rules governing them. For the purpose of this article, I am covering restricted and unrestricted free agents at their most basic level; with the rules to which majority of free agents are subject.
Restricted Free Agents
We’ll start with the more complicated of the two. Restricted free agents are players that have fewer than seven years of accrued seasons (language used in the CBA) AND is younger than the age of 27 as of June 30th of the end of a league year. So, if a player is 26 years old, but has been playing in the NHL since they were 18, they do NOT qualify as a restricted free agent because they have more than seven years of NHL experience.
So what does this mean? What makes them restricted? The thing that makes them restricted is the Qualifying Offer. A qualifying offer is essentially an offer of a one-year contract and must be tendered by June 25th or by the first Monday following the NHL Entry Draft.
The player has four options after receiving this offer. They may sign the qualifying offer and accept it as a one-year contract; they may elect salary arbitration (something the team may do as well) where a neutral third party will hear salary requests from both the player and the team and then determine a one-year agreement; they may negotiate a new contract with the team; or they may test the market and potentially sign an offer sheet from a new team.
5of7 | Flickr
“Now wait!” I hear you say. “If he’s free to sign with another team, how is this a restriction?” A very astute question on your part, and here is the answer. By giving the player a qualifying offer for a one-year contract, the team is given a “Right of First-Refusal.” This means that if a player does sign an offer sheet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that player is going to a new team. Their team is then given one week to match the terms of the offer sheet, or let the player go. We saw this happen with Ryan O’Reilly and the Calgary Flames during the lockout-shortened season.
The big difference here is that if the team does not match the offer, depending on the terms of the contract, they will be awarded compensation in terms of draft picks, and sometimes players, in return for losing a restricted player. The terms for this season’s RFA compensation are:
OFFER SHEET & COMPENSATION
$1,110,249 or below None
Over $1,110,249 to $1,682,194 Third Round
Over $1,682,194 to $3,364,391 Second Round
Over $3,364,391 to $5,046,585 First Round and Third Round
Over $5,046,585 to $6,728,781 First Round, Second Round, and Third
Over $6,728,781 to $8,410,976 Two First Rounds, Second Round, and
Over $8,410,976 Four First Rounds
(Source: NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement)
This compensation chart adjusts every year by the same percentage of the league’s average salary.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Bridget Samuels | Flickr
An unrestricted free agent is defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement as a player that has seven accrued seasons or is 27 years or older by June 30th of the end of an NHL season. These players are UNRESTRICTED free agents and have absolutely 0 restrictions on their negotiating ability. If they want to stay with their current team, they can sign a contract any time before, or after, July 1st; but once July 1st comes around, they are free to negotiate with any team they want without any repercussions.
Teams are not awarded any type of compensation for losing an unrestricted player either, which is why you see more and more teams trading a player’s negotiating rights now a days (see Dan Boyle just a couple days ago).
If a player qualifies for all of the Restricted free agent status, but is not tendered a qualifying offer, that player immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent and may negotiate with any team he wants.
There are several other ways for a player to become an unrestricted free agent, but these are the most commonly found around the league.