Look for the NHL to shorten courting period and move free agency up from July 1

The eight-day negotiation period ahead of the opening of free agency this past season resulted in many notable deals getting all but done before teams were officially allowed to ink players. Tying Day 1 of signing season to the draft, however, can solve that problem.
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One way or another, the date for the start of free agency will almost certainly be moved by the NHL away from July 1. What will likely happen in the near future is that the “interview period,” which appears to have taken any of the intrigue out of free agency and shows that GMs can’t have nice things, will be tied to the date of the draft and significantly reduced.

Amen to that. Who wants to spend Canada’s birthday in front of a television or computer monitor waiting to hear what players have signed contracts while their non-hockey-loving friends are enjoying the most pleasant holiday of the year? (And who wants to spend the entire day stuck inside writing about it? Amirite?)

It’s pretty clear the situation needs at least some tweaks. This year’s free-agent courting period began June 23, which gave GMs and prospective free agents eight days to cook up deals, and that’s exactly what they did. Any semblance of following the rules and waiting until July 1 was basically tossed out the window in 2019. Many of the biggest deals were done, and leaked by agents or GMs, well before the 12 o’clock noon start of free agency July 1. It made for less-than-riveting entertainment that day and actually breached the rules regarding free agency.

That much is clear, according to a memo the league sent out to its 31 teams in mid-June outlining the parameters when it came to talking to prospective free agents during the courting period. “As we have previously advised, clubs are permitted to discuss their potential interest in, as well as the general parameters of, a potential future contractual relationship with another club’s pending RFA or UFA during the applicable ‘interview periods,’ ” the memo said, “but clubs may not enter into any agreements, or make any binding offers, promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind,express or implied,oral or written, (italics added) concerning the terms of a potential (standard players’ contract) with another Club’s pending RFA or UFA.”

It’s clearly worded that teams are not allowed to enter any oral agreements with players, but here we were getting precise details of terms and money for a number of contracts the night before free agency opened. In a way, this is rather inevitable and the NHL knows that. The interview period has evolved from one where teams and players were able to discuss generalities to one where players are essentially being offered contracts and accepting them. The only caveat is that the contract cannot be signed until July 1 so if one of the sides ever decided to back out, the agreement would not be enforceable.

So why doesn’t the NHL clamp down on this? Well, because it’s not terribly concerned about it. The interview period keeps the league in the news during that dead period between the draft and the opening of free agency, but clearly an eight-day courting period is far too long. What is likely to happen is the date of free agency won’t be a fixed date, but would be tied to the draft.

This is not a front-burner issue and it will have to be agreed to between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. Complicating matters are a couple of things. The first is that this collective bargaining agreement might expire within a year anyway, if either the players or league triggers its option to opt out of the deal this September, which would mean it would expire after next season. (The owners almost certainly will not. The players are much more likely to do it, but nobody knows exactly what the players’ intention is at the moment.) The other is that next year’s draft is extraordinarily late, slated for June 26-27 in Montreal.

By reducing the interview period and tightening up the time between the draft and the opening of free agency, players and teams wouldn’t have the chance to get as involved in in-depth negotiations as they do now. And by moving up the date of free agency, the league will also ensure than it doesn’t coincide with one of the most anticipated holidays of the year in Canada.

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