New agreement affecting colleges

There are new rules governing NHL draft choices and contracts.

by Chris Lempesis

The new National Hockey League collective bargaining agreement, finalized in July, had some major new wrinkles to it – wrinkles that garnered a lot of attention.

It included the league’s first salary cap, which was set at $39 million, and a 24 percent rollback to existing player contracts.

There was another change in the new agreement, one that perhaps didn’t get as much attention, but one that could have a sizeable effect on the world of college hockey.

Essentially, the agreement extends the amount of time teams have drafted players’ exclusive rights.

Because the wording of the collective bargaining agreement reads like a second language, a comparison of a current and former member of Minnesota men’s hockey team, both of whom wore No. 26, more easily describes the differences.

When forward Thomas Vanek was selected fifth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2003, after his standout freshman season, the Sabres owned his rights for as long as one year after, as stated in the old agreement, the “conclusion of his playing of hockey in college,” minus a few exceptions.

The player who now dons that number, freshman forward Phil Kessel – likely to be one of the top two players taken in this year’s NHL Entry Draft at the end of June – faces a different situation.

The team that selects Kessel, 18, will keep his exclusive rights “through August 15 following the graduation of his college class,” as stated in an e-mail sent to the Daily from Tyler Currie, National Hockey League Players’ Association media relations coordinator.

But, hypothetically, if Kessel were to leave school early, the e-mail states the team that drafts him will keep his exclusive rights “until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft.”

If Kessel were not to sign by either date, he then would become a free agent. Other more complex stipulations were made under the new collective bargaining agreement for drafted players’ rights as well, for example, how it applies to players 20 and older who already are in college.

“For the most part, there isn’t a substantial difference between the new rules, but rather just a more concise layout of the dates involved,” Currie said in a separate e-mail.

Minnesota Wild Assistant General Manager Tom Lynn explained why the change was made.

“(The NHL and NHL Players’ Association) took care to make sure (the change to the agreement) didn’t hurt the college game by giving the teams four years after drafting a guy to sign him,” Lynn said. “The teams wouldn’t have to rush a guy out of college just in order to have his rights.

“(Before) they’d only have one year after he left school. So, if a player, after his freshman year, was thinking, ‘Huh, I’ll leave school for a year, then I’ll be free’. Now, the team gets him for four years, so the player will either stay in school or sign with his team.”

The player voted as the best in college hockey last season, Denver defenseman Matt Carle, seems to like the changes.

“I mean, maybe it will put pressure on teams to sign (players),” said Carle, now a member of the San Jose Sharks. “But at the same time, it gives the guys the freedom to stay in college and if they want to become a free agent, I think that’s a huge advantage to college players.”

But length of rights ownership was not the only change to the agreement with regard to drafted players. There was a monetary adjustment as well.

Players drafted in 2005 and 2006 who decide to sign with their respective teams now can earn a maximum annual salary of $850,000 in base and bonus, with a maximum of 10 percent of the salary being in the bonus.

The agreement states that number will jump to $875,000 for 2007 and 2008 draftees, $900,000 for 2009 and 2010 draftees and $925,000 for those taken in 2011, the last year of the new agreement. However the 10 percent max bonus will remain the same.

This is considerably less than before when a player could have as much as 50 percent of his salary – as much as $625,000, according to Lynn, who noted that the Wild’s Mikko Koivu carried a $1.275 million number when he signed with the team in 2003.

“So there’s less incentive to come out of college right now,” Lynn said.

That might be true, but players are leaving school early with much more frequency than they did before, especially this season.

From the Western Collegiate Hockey Association alone, Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny (Philadelphia) and Danny Irmen (Minnesota), Minnesota State’s David Backes (St. Louis), Carle and Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl (Toronto), all juniors, have jumped early to the NHL.

But the man who coached Carle during his time with the Pioneers, George Gwozdecky, didn’t think the new agreement had much to do with it, pointing out that it was just a couple years ago, in 2004, that players like Minnesota’s Keith Ballard and Vanek left early.

One possible reason there have been a higher-than-normal amount of players leaving early is the fact that they have been dubbed “transitional players.” That definition applies to anyone taken before the 2005 NHL Entry Draft – basically, 2003 and back because there was no 2004 draft because of the lockout.

Those “transitional players” stood to gain more by coming out now than they would have if they stuck around for their senior seasons. Had they stayed, they would have fallen under the new agreement stipulations – in other words, less money.

For example, Potulny’s contract with the Flyers was widely reported to be in the neighborhood of a two-year, $1.6 million deal. He would not have made as much had he come back for his final year with the Gophers.

Either way, Minnesota coach Don Lucia said the new agreement definitely has an effect on how the Gophers are recruiting.

“I think you always want to try to bring in the best player you can,” Lucia said. “But, at the same time, you want to make sure that you’re going to get the benefit out of that player.

“If you get a player that, all of a sudden, scores 10 goals his freshman year and thinks he’s ready for the pros and leaves, then it’s hardly worth recruiting that player.”

It is the players who have been recruited for this year and beyond who will have to deal with the fallout of the changes because the “transitional players” will, for the most part, be gone to the pros or returning for their senior seasons by the end of the summer.

One of those players is 18-year-old Kyle Okposo, a highly regarded Gophers recruit. Okposo was named the United States Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year last season.

Okposo is projected to be a first-round selection for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft as he was ranked 13th among North American players in the NHL Mid-Term Rankings by Central Scouting, released in January.

Okposo admitted he didn’t really know all that much about the new agreement’s structure as far as it applies to draftees and, thus, couldn’t say whether it will affect how long he will stay at Minnesota.

“I’ve just kind of decided to play that one by ear,” Okposo said, “and see if the opportunity comes and if I think I’m ready to leave or stick around for four years; that’s a possibility, too. I’m just going to play that one as it comes.”

A wait-and-see approach will have to be taken to see how much the college game will be affected by the changes in the agreement. But one thing seems to be a certainty: The college game will be affected.

“I don’t know if we’re seeing anything unusual at this time of year versus any other year in recent history,” Gwozdecky said.

“And yet, I may be wrong, but I’m going to pretty much hold my judgment and my confirmation until the end of the summer when I can really compare it.”