Unrestricted free agents, or UFAs as we geeks call them, are going to play a massive role in the Expansion Draft come June of next season. The rules on UFAs are a bit confusing so I’ll attempt to break them down, and then show why their impact will be so significant.
Before we get into the rules though, it’s important to have a grasp on the league calendar. Each league year begins on July 1st, which means all contracts are built around this date. When a player signs a 4 year deal in 2014, his contract ends on June 30th, 2018. This is important because it means during the Expansion Draft all UFAs are still technically under contract with their current club.
So, here’s where the rules come in. UFAs are treated like any other player on a roster meaning they can be protected as part of the nine or 11 protected players or exposed by their current (for the next 10 days) club. They do not however fulfill the 40/70 rule. This rule requires teams to leave at least one defenseman and two forwards unprotected who have played 40 games the prior season or 70 the past two years.
UFAs 2016-17 contracts do NOT count toward the 60% salary cap requirement Las Vegas must meet in selecting their 30 players in the Expansion Draft. But… If a UFA is selected, and signed by Las Vegas during the draft, their contract will go towards the 60% requirement.
That brings us to the portion that makes the entire situation incredibly sticky.
During a normal season, NHL teams are strictly prohibited from speaking to pending UFAs until the league year begins on July 1st. However, if a UFA is left unprotected in the Expansion Draft, Las Vegas will be granted exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with the player during the three day draft period on June 17-20. If Las Vegas comes to an agreement with a player, and a deal is signed, that player is considered Vegas’ selection in the draft from the UFAs current team.
For example, San Jose elects to leave Joe Thornton exposed in the Expansion Draft. Las Vegas will have the opportunity to speak to Thornton from the 17th to the 20th to discuss a contract. If an agreement is reach, and an official deal is signed, Thornton becomes the one player Las Vegas has selected from the Sharks. His 2017-18 contract will be used toward the 60% cap rule, and no other team ever had an opportunity to negotiate with him.
Still making sense? Ok, let’s muddy up the waters with a little gamesmanship that will happen next year.
Let’s keep using Joe Thornton as the example. Since he is under contract with the Sharks until June 30th, 2017, San Jose may negotiate a future contract with him any time between now and the Expansion Draft deadline. Say they come to an agreement, but don’t sign an official deal. The Sharks can leave Thornton unprotected, Vegas will have the chance to offer him a deal, but he may already be unofficially signed in San Jose, allowing the Sharks to protect a different player without the chance of losing Thornton. It’s a risk, but one likely worth taking on a player who can be trusted.
How about the flip side? Say Thornton is left unprotected, Las Vegas calls and offers him a deal, but they don’t sign the official contract. Vegas can select a different player from San Jose and still sign Thornton on July 1st. Again, risky because he would then have the chance to speak with the other 29 teams on July 1st, but if he keeps his word, Las Vegas can game the system and wind up with two players from the same team rather than just one.
There are 211 players currently set up to become UFAs in the offseason of 2017. Many will ink deals some time between now and then for one of two reasons. The obvious one, they want to keep their player. Or the more interesting one, using the contract to fulfill the 40/70 rule in the Expansion Draft.
The remaining players who do not sign deals will become the most interesting players in the draft. Will any team protect a UFA simply to block Las Vegas from speaking to their guy for a 72 hour window? Will Las Vegas actually sign a player during the window and forfeit the chance to select another player in exchange for one who is free to sign with them 10 days later? How many under the table deals will be made in an attempt to get a leg up on the Expansion Draft system?
It’s an incredibly intricate web that has 31 badass spiders crawling around all fighting to eat the best fly. In our interview with George McPhee he was hesitant to give up any strategy he plans on using in the Expansion Draft, and for good reason. But when all is said and done and the Expansion Draft, Entry Draft, and free agency are all over with, it’s likely to come down to the UFAs that determine how well our spider did constructing the first roster in team history.