NHL Free Agents Explained

How the NHL free agent system works.

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 07: New logos are etched into the ice prior to the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at the Consol Energy Center on October 7, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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Here's an explanation of the rules on NHL free agents under the 2005 collective bargaining agreement.

Unrestricted NHL Free Agents

  • The 27-or-7 Benchmark

    Any player whose contract has expired can declare himself an unrestricted free agent if he is at least 27 years old or has at least seven years of service as an NHL player.

    Between 2005 and 2008, the age of unrestricted free agency declined from 31 to 27. More details here.

  • July 1

    The free agency period begins on the first day of July. At that point, an unrestricted free agent is free to negotiate and sign a contract with any NHL team.

  • Free Agent Interviews
    **new for 2013

    Unrestricted free agents may meet and interview with potential new teams from the day after the NHL Entry Draft (but not later than June 25) until June 30.

  • Seven-Year Maximum
    **new for 2013

    A term limit of seven years is set for contracts signed by unrestricted free agents.

  • No Compensation

    Teams losing unrestricted free agents do not receive any compensation.

    Under the collective agreement that existed prior to 2005, draft picks were awarded as compensation.

See also: Restricted Free Agents and Offer Sheets

Restricted Free Agents

Players who are no longer considered "entry-level" but do not qualify as unrestricted free agents become restricted free agents when their contracts expire.

  • Qualifying Offers

    The current team must extend a "qualifying offer" to a restricted free agent to retain negotiating rights to that player.

    Players who earned less than $660,000 in the previous season must be offered 110 percent of last season's salary. Players making up to $1 million must be offered 105 percent. Players making over $1 million must be offered 100 percent.

    If the qualifying offer is not made, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

    If the player rejects a qualifying offer, he remains a restricted free agent.

    Offer Sheets and Restricted Free Agents

    • The Offer Sheet is a Contract

      An offer sheet is a contract negotiated between an NHL team and a restricted free agent on another team.

      The offer sheet includes all the terms of a standard player contract, including length, salary, bonuses, etc.

      A player who has signed a qualifying offer or is going to salary arbitration with his original team cannot sign an offer sheet.

    • Accept or Decline

      When an offer sheet is signed, the player’s current (original) team is notified. That team can keep the player under the terms of the offer sheet, or decline and let the player join the new team under those terms.

      The original team has seven days to make its decision.

    • No Turning Back

      Once an offer sheet has been signed by a player, the original team cannot negotiate a new contract under different terms or trade the player’s rights. It’s only options are to accept or decline the offer sheet.

    • The No-Trade Clause

      If the original team chooses to accept, or “match” the offer sheet, the player cannot be traded for one year.

    • Compensation

      If the original team declines the offer sheet and loses the player, it receives draft picks from the player’s new team as compensation.

      Compensation for losing a restricted free agent is on a sliding scale, depending on how much the new contract is worth. The exact numbers change every year.

      The most a team can lose for signing an RFA is four first-round draft picks.

      For 2011, a team signing a restricted free agent to a contract worth more than $7,835,219 per season loses four first-round picks to the player's old team.

      For a contract worth $6,268,176 or more per year, the acquiring team gives up two first-round picks, one second rounder, and one third.

      There are another four levels of compensation, going down to a contract worth up to $1,034,249 per year, for which there is no compensation.

      Salary Arbitration

      A team or player can file for salary arbitration as a mechanism to settle contract disputes.

      A team can take a player to arbitration once in his career, and cannot ask for a salary reduction greater than 15 percent. Players can ask for salary arbitration as often as they want.

      See also: salary arbitration explained

      • December 1 Deadline

        Restricted free agents must sign NHL contracts by December 1, or they are not eligible to play in the NHL for the rest of the season.

      Previous page: Unrestricted Free Agents Explained