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NHL Free Agency – Everything You Need to Know

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NHL Free Agency - BIXLER

In the NHL, free agency dates to 1972, when the league granted players some restricted rights, but it wasn’t until 1995 that players got the right to unrestricted free agency. The 2013 collective bargaining agreement, which is a 10-year agreement, lays out the rules for NHL free agents.

Here is the breakdown of some of the key rules governing the NHL’s unrestricted free agents:

Unrestricted NHL Free Agents

The 27-or-7 Benchmark: Any player whose contract has expired can declare himself an unrestricted free agent if he is at least 27 years old or has at least seven years playing as an NHL player.

The Free Agency Period: Free agency begins on the first day of July. At that point, an unrestricted free agent is free to negotiate and sign a contract with any NHL team. Unrestricted free agents may meet and interview with potential new teams from the day after the NHL Entry Draft until June 30.

Seven-Year Maximum: A term limit of seven years is set for contracts signed by unrestricted free agents.

NHL Free Agency - BIXLER

Restricted Free Agents

Players who are no longer considered entry-level but do not qualify as unrestricted free agents become restricted free agents when their contracts expire.​ A team must extend a “qualifying offer” to a restricted free agent to retain negotiating rights to that player. If the team does not make a qualifying offer, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. If the player rejects a qualifying offer, he remains a restricted free agent.

Offer Sheets and Restricted Free Agents

An offer sheet is a contract negotiated between an NHL team and a restricted free agent on another team. The offer sheet includes all the terms of a standard player contract, including length, salary, and bonuses. A player who has signed a qualifying offer or is going to salary arbitration with his original team cannot sign an offer sheet.

When an offer sheet is signed, the player’s current team is notified. That team can keep the player under the terms of the offer sheet, or decline and let the player join the new team under those terms. The original team has seven days to make its decision.

Once a player signs an offer sheet, the original team cannot negotiate a new contract under different terms or trade the player’s rights. Its only options are to accept or decline the offer sheet. If the original team chooses to accept, or match, the offer sheet, the player cannot be traded for one year.

If the original team declines the offer sheet and loses the player, it receives draft picks from the player’s new team as compensation. Compensation for losing a restricted free agent is on a sliding scale, depending on how much the new contract is worth. The exact numbers change every year. The most a team can lose for signing a restricted free agent is four first-round draft picks.

Canadiens Sign Star Hurricanes Forward Sebastian Aho to Offer Sheet

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin made one of the most aggressive moves in the NHL’s free agency period on Monday by tendering an offer sheet to restricted free agent forward Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes.

The 21-year-old Aho has accepted the proposed five-year contract with an average annual value of US$8.454 million. If Carolina does not match it, the Canadiens must send a first-, second- and third-round pick to the Hurricanes as compensation.

Carolina has seven days to make a decision. In the meantime, Bergevin cannot pursue other high-priced free agents with his cap space now in limbo.

“You take a risk when you do that, guys are getting signed,” said Bergevin on Monday afternoon. “When you have that cap space tied up, you can’t go out and spend it, because then you get the player and you’re in a bad position. That’s the risk you take. That’s the business we’re in. We felt, even if it doesn’t happen, we still have a very good hockey team.”

The offer sheet for Aho forces Carolina into a tough position. Reports say the Canadiens purposely frontloaded the deal to pay Aho more than US$21 million in the first 12 months in signing bonuses alone. Aho’s actual salary would reportedly be $700-750,000 per season.

Offer sheets are rare when it comes to NHL free agency because they’re expensive, rarely successful, and also force the hand of opposing general managers. The last offer sheet tendered was in 2013 when the Calgary Flames gave one to Ryan O’Reilly. That deal was matched by the Colorado Avalanche.

Bergevin refused to admit there’s an unspoken law between general managers to avoid tendering offer sheets to restricted free agents, especially when structured in a way to take advantage of a cash-strapped team.

“When you make an offer like this, you can put a team in a vulnerable position,” said Bergevin. “If there’s an unwritten rule, nobody told me about it. We all have a competitive edge, and this is part of the collective bargaining agreement. It’s within the rules. I’m in charge of the Montreal Canadiens and not the other teams.”

A visibly vexed Don Waddell, the Carolina Hurricanes general manager, said he would take his time before making his decision.

“There’s no reason to do it immediately,” said Waddell at a press conference. “Probably helps the other team if I did it immediately because then they can go out and sign more players and that might help them right now. The decision isn’t about him (Aho), talking to him, it’s more about what we want to do as an organization and showing our fans what we want to do to keep this team going forward.”

The 21-year-old Aho had 30 goals and 53 assists last season, with a total of 83 goals and 114 assists over his three years in the NHL. “He has the potential to be a No. 1 center on this team,” said Bergevin. “Look at what he did in Carolina in the regular season and the playoffs. He’s really young and fits well with our young team here. With him in the lineup, he would make our team better.”

Bergevin made a pair of cap-clearing moves on Sunday in preparation for the Aho offer sheet. The Canadiens sent Andrew Shaw and his $3.9 million annual cap hit to the Chicago Blackhawks before trading away Nicolas Deslauriers to the Anaheim Ducks. Montreal did not retain any salary in either deal.

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Want to know more about free agency in sports? Check out our blog on NBA free agency!

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