The NHL today released to the public details of its proposal to the NHLPA in hopes of saving an 82-game season. Among the highlights is a change to the entry-level contract (ELC) structure and a lengthened timeline for players to reach unrestricted free agency. Both of those moves could directly impact college hockey with mixed results.
College hockey coaches and administrators believed coming out of the last lockout that the new collective bargaining agreement would be a positive, but as the years showed the impact was in fact negative. Players began signing contracts earlier, oftentimes too early, and teams were beginning to lose players sometimes unnecessarily.
Here’s what the NHL has proposed to change the ELC structure:
• Entry Level System commitment will be limited to two (2) years (covering two full seasons) for all Players who sign their first SPC between the ages of 18 and 24 (i.e., where the first year of the SPC only covers a partial season, SPC must be for three (3) years).
Until the entire CBA is known, every word of it in regards to ELCs, there’s not a lot we can gather from what has been released, as it is merely the surface. Also, the NHLPA still has to accept this offer and based on most reports, we’ll see some sort of counter. According to an interview between NHLPA rep Steve Montador and Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun Times, the NHLPA was opposed to changes to the ELC structure, so this may not happen anyway.
Even with that in mind, here’s why a two-year ELC, in general, would benefit college hockey programs.
As it stands right now, players are signing three-year ELCs earlier because it allows them to start their clock for their first big contract as an RFA earlier. Starting a clock earlier won’t change, but the two-year window will make it less attractive for teams to sign players before they are ready, even if only by a little bit.
Additionally, if a team signs a player in a partial season (i.e. at the end of his college season), the contract has to be three years in length. There would be no burning of a year as there is right now. Players were signing three-year ELCs at the end of their college season and even if they only played two games at the NHL or AHL level, that counted as a whole year leaving only two years remaining on the ELC. That was a huge incentive for players to sign, but would now be eliminated under the new proposal.
Odds are, you’d see less drafted college players signing after their sophomore year and even fewer after their freshman year (there aren’t a ton already), while still seeing a steady stream go after their junior year. Most college coaches would prefer to keep guys all four years, but in this current developmental landscape, it is unrealistic to expect players to make it all the way and getting three good years is better than the alternative.
A two-year clock for these contracts should allow players a little more patience to let the process play out, continue to develop at their own pace and then make the jump as a more seasoned 20-year-old and perhaps need less time in the AHL and have the opportunity to earn the full freight on their ELC at the NHL level.
The eight years to free agency poses an additional problem. If players have eyes on the future, they might want to start that clock early. However, it would only be those elite of the elite that would need to worry about something like this.
The average NHL career lasts 5.6 years. Players selected within the first two rounds of the draft would be the most likely to exceed that average, while the odd college free agent should come close.
The one thing that none of this changes is a player’s opportunity to make money right away via a signing bonus. So while in theory it all looks good for college hockey, there are going to be players who have an interest in making that money and getting to that next contract, even if they’re getting the significantly lower rate in the AHL temporarily.
Just for an example of the disparity in monies earned, Zemgus Girgensons, who signed a three-year ELC in the offseason, spurning a commitment to Vermont would make $925,000 as a base salary if he made the Sabres roster and played in the NHL. However, as a Rochester American he would make a base of $70,000 (Cap Geek). Now his was a move made more for developmental purposes than money, but some players may want to attempt to skip the AHL to earn to their full potential even in those ELC years.
There are still other issues that may hurt college hockey. The current CBA creates more of a prevalence of college free agent signings and I’d be uncertain any changes made in the new CBA would create a significant enough difference. The only way that might stop is if the NHL lowered the limit on the number of contracts a team is able to sign annually, forcing GMs to be more selective.
There was also no mention of changes to the Entry Draft, which is something college hockey officials have pushed for, either raising the draft age or bringing back the eighth and ninth rounds. There is still plenty to play out, so there could be some alterations in the end, but there has been little indication this is a topic being discussed even in the periphery.
Though Tuesday’s news brings optimism that there may be a season after all, it is important to remember that any change at the NHL level has a trickle down to the developmental levels as well. We all want hockey back and hope there is a deal in place sooner than later, but it’s also fair to desire a CBA that works for the game as a whole. Strengthening every level from major junior to college hockey to junior A to the grassroots programs will only benefit the NHL in the long term.