Wednesday March 25th, 2015

It's déjà vu all over again for the Blackhawks. One year after losing prized prospect Kevin Hayes to a Collective Bargaining Agreement loophole, there’s speculation that another draft gem could slip from their grasp the very same way this summer.

Defenseman Mike Paliotta is not Hayes, the blue chip forward who bolted to the Rangers last August, but the 21-year-old captain of the Vermont Catamounts has matured into an outstanding prospect since being selected by Chicago in the third round of the 2011 draft. Blessed with an NHL-ready frame (6' 4" and 205 pounds) and a nasty disposition, he’s always been projected as a punisher. But in the last two years he’s added a surprising offensive element to his game as well. Paliotta chipped in with 27 assists and 36 points in 41 games this season. Among defensemen, he tied for second in the nation in assists and fourth in points.

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No one’s mistaking him for the second-coming of Duncan Keith, but his progress has impressed scouts.

“He’ll make his mark as a smart, positionally sound banger, but it’s good to see the offense coming,” one scout told SI.com. “When you leave a kid in school, you want to see that skill development. You want him to improve on what he does well and round it off with a few new tricks. He was a good prospect before. He looks like a player now.”

Paliotta is a player any organization, even the deeply loaded Blackhawks, would love to have, which is why they’re currently in negotiations with his agent, hoping to bring the promising blueliner into the fold now that his senior season has concluded. When all is said and done there’s a good chance the two sides will come to terms that ensure he wears red and black for years to come.

But as in the case of Hayes, or of Justin Schultz before him, Paliotta has options thanks to section 8.6 (c) (iv) of the CBA which states that (and I’m paraphrasing for brevity here) a club holds exclusive negotiating rights to a college player through Aug. 15 of the fourth year following his selection in the draft. That fourth year can be either his senior season or, if he spent his first post-draft year in the USHL or a non major-junior league, his junior season.

After that, the player is free to sign with the team of his choosing.

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That’s a rare hammer for a young player to hold. The CBA was written to give all the cards to the teams when it comes to entry-level dealings ... except for this scenario. And since the financial terms of an entry-level contract are set in stone, the appeal of signing with a particular team comes down to the opportunity it presents the player in question.

The thinking is that Paliotta may decide that his best chance to play right away will be with another team. Chicago’s system is loaded with righthanded defensemen. So much so that they dealt NHL-ready Adam Clendening to the Canucks in January to clear up a logjam that also includes Trevor van Riemsdyk, Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns, a player with a skill set similar Paliotta’s.

That’s a mess of hurdles for Paliotta to clear in order to secure a roster spot. It might be an honor to play for a storied organization like the Blackhawks, but if another team offers him a shorter path to the NHL ... well, you can understand the appeal of using the loophole.

Sure, it’s frustrating to fans of the team that drafted the player, but this loophole isn’t going away. It’s viewed as a trade-off, something that potentially compensates a player who chooses to stay through four years of school over the instant cash that comes with signing his entry-level contract at 18 or 19.

Don’t be surprised if Paliotta uses it.

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