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What’s the future of NHL free agency?

Greg Wyshynski
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For the second season in a row, the NHL Trade Deadline yielded 16 trades on deadline day; that's down from a record 31 in March 2010, but also the lowest totals since March 2000.

Parity is one explanation, as there are more buyers than sellers because the playoff races remain tight; or at least offer hope to the dregs of the League that would otherwise be selling. (The timing of the deadline is also to blame here, as some GMs feel it falls too early). The high prices for available players is another. The scarcity of quality players on deadline day is yet another.

All of this tracks back, in some way, to free agency. Teams remain strong because they retain their cores. Players become hard to move when they sign long-term contracts that span restricted to unrestricted free agency.

The CBA is up this year, and free agency is near the top of the list of contentious points between the NHLPA and the NHL — it always is. So what might it look like after the next negotiation?

Lyle Richardson looked at the possibilities in a column about the CBA over on Kukla's:

Eligibility for UFA status. Lowering the eligibility for UFA status from 31 to 27 (or following seven consecutive seasons) has been both a blessing and a curse for NHL general managers.

On the one hand, it has put younger players into the free agent market, giving teams with the cap space and the willingness to spend an opportunity to acquire quality players in the prime of their careers. On the other hand, it's resulted in teams paying for potential by signing restricted free agents to longer, more lucrative deals, with the result some teams end up overpaying for players who fail to pan out as hoped.

If the eligibility age is lowered, its impact could be felt by the trade deadline.

Lowering the age will make players more attractive in the UFA market, but could also result in more talented younger players becoming available on deadline day by teams unwilling or unable to re-sign them, possibly resulting in more trade activity. It could also result in fewer pending UFA players being available, as teams could be more inclined to lock up more of their young talent to longer contracts.

What this really impacts: The "second contract" for young star players; the frequently long-term deals that span from RFA status through some years of UFA status.

That's really what throws the salary structure of the NHL out of whack, even more so than the prices paid during the free-agent frenzy. Seven of the top 10 cap hits in the NHL are for players under the age of 27, according to Cap Geek. That number drops to five when you're talking about salary for 2011-12, because contracts become front-loaded for veteran players.

There's been some talk, since the last CBA, in trying to limit those "second contracts" in either term or compensation. But that's not where the wind's blowing in other sports.

The NBA recently altered its rules during labor negotiations, instituting the Derek Rose Rule. From Aggery Sam of the CSN Chicago:

For those who may be unfamiliar, one of the stipulations the players argued for in the tentative settlement agreement with the league was rewarding young players who outperform their rookie contracts, hence the rule's nickname. The new deal will allow rookies to get paid up to 30 percent of their team's salary cap on their second contract by reaching one of a few incentives, such as being an All-Star Game starter twice in heir first four seasons, making an All-NBA team or in Rose's case, winning the league's MVP award.

If the NHL was to limit "second contracts," it would increase the number of impact players available at the deadline and in the summer. The downside is that it would harm small-market or rebuilding teams that wouldn't have the luxury of securing their assets on long-term deals — defined as "five or more years" under the current rules.

I've long been in favor of allowing teams to retain their investments through any means necessary, including the creative accounting done by GMs like Ken Holland. I think the NHL is strong when there are powerhouse teams, and the best way to maintain a powerhouse is with rules that restrict when talent can leave.

While the idea of a compensation limit on "second contracts" intrigues me, I'm hoping the current free agency benchmarks remain intact when Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr emerge from their negotiations. You know, sometime in 2013 …

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