New CBA Unlikely to Bring Relief to College Hockey

Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, college coaches were optimistic that the new collective bargaining agreement coming out of that dispute would benefit college hockey. As they soon found out, it didn’t. In fact, it might have done more harm than good for the college game.

Many coaches were hopeful that the new CBA in 2013 could bring positive change, even if subtle. The big hope was that some adjustments would be made to perhaps curtail the incentives for players leaving school earlier than maybe they should. In fact, several college coaches met with a group of NHL GMs in June of 2011 to explain the issues they faced in the now former CBA.

It may not have mattered. If the summary of terms for the new agreement is any indication, there doesn’t appear to be much relief coming to college hockey in the NHL and NHLPA’s new agreement.

According to the terms, the current rules for signing drafted college players remains the same from the previous CBA.

Additionally, coaches has hoped to see some alterations to the NHL Entry Draft, either increasing the minimum age to 19 and/or the return of a nine-round draft. Hockey Canada had also proposed raising the draft age to 19 on behalf of the Canadian Hockey League.

According to the terms, the only alterations made to the draft involved the weighted lottery system, which only changes things a little bit for the NHL and not at all for college or junior hockey.

Further explanation of how the new CBA will impact college hockey coming up after the jump.

As the summary of terms was revealed (and shared by Pro Hockey Talk) for the 2013 CBA, rules as they pertain to the exclusive negotiating window for drafted college players remains status quo.

As of now, teams have until the fourth year after a player who is playing college hockey was drafted. Teams can retain the player’s rights if he still has college eligibility beyond that four-year period and chooses to stay through graduation. The current exclusive negotiating window puts pressure on teams to sign players earlier than later to avoid the risk of losing that player if he chooses not to sign before the window closes (SEE: Schultz, Justin. Wheeler, Blake).

The option of staying in school currently gives the player some leverage within the window to ensure he gets the most out of his entry-level contract from the NHL club with his rights. However, should the team make a fair offer before a player’s eligibility is exhausted, it makes sense for the player to take it then from a business standpoint. That’s a big reason why there have been so many more players leaving school early in recent years.

Getting back to the new CBA, there is little mention in the summary of terms regarding any changes to the signing of unrestricted free agents out of college hockey, which is another issue college coaches have concerns about. Currently, any undrafted player that is over the maximum age of eligibility for the NHL Draft automatically becomes an unrestricted free agent eligible to sign an entry-level contract with any team. College free agents are attractive to NHL teams due to their economic efficiency, and many over the last few years have been signed before their college eligibility has expired.

Some coaches mentioned the desire of a signing deadline for both college free agents and drafted players so as to be better prepared for the upcoming season. Players signing later in the summer left holes almost impossible to fill prior to the season for college teams. There was no mention of a deadline listed in the summary, which would suggest none is forthcoming.

While the changes were few, there were two key alterations that may impact college hockey in some small way.

One positive for college coaches that may help if only a little is that players can no longer burn a year off of their entry-level contract by signing at the end of their college campaign to get in a few games at the NHL level.

For example, J.T. Brown signed with Tampa Bay after his sophomore season at Minnesota Duluth last year. He appeared in just five games for the Lightning at the end of the last season which counted as a full year on his contract, leaving just one year remaining on his entry-level deal. So he’ll get to restricted free agency a year sooner. That will no longer be the case.

Players may still join NHL teams late, receive signing bonuses and play, but that short stint will not count as a full year on an entry-level contract, according to the summary.

Burning a year was a key incentive for some players, particularly college free agents to leave school quickly after their college season ended to burn that year. Taking that option away could slow that players’ decision process down as the only incentive to get those few games in at the tail end of the season is the money from his signing bonus and the prorated contract. Still not bad, but not nearly as enticing as burning an entire year off an ELC.

The other potential change that is apparently being brought to the CBA in regards to college players is the incorporation of a new rule that addresses college players leaving school prior to graduation, but following the fourth June 1 after the player is drafted. It is called the Goepfert Letter Agreement and no one seems to know what it is besides those involved in the negotiations.

It is believed this may address the situation like that of Justin Schultz earlier this year. The defenseman decided to leave Wisconsin after his junior season. Seeing as Schultz spent an extra year in junior hockey after being drafted, four years had passed since he was selected by Anaheim. As was his right within the old CBA he refused to sign with Anaheim and became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after Anaheim’s exclusive negotiating window closed. He was signed to the max entry-level deal by Edmonton later in the summer.

Still, details of what the Goepfert Letter Agreement entails are scant.

This probably isn’t want college coaches and fans were hoping for, but the NHL has no real obligation to do anything other than what’s in its own best interest. College hockey has become a training ground for some of the biggest stars in the NHL, but the likelihood of sweeping changes coming in such a contentious CBA negotiation was always unlikely.

More could become clear in coming weeks, but for now it looks like things will mostly stay the same for college hockey going forward in its relationship with the NHL.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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