The new collective bargaining agreement that will govern NHL-NHLPA CBA matters for the next decade is out for your viewing pleasure (get it from the NHLPA here, or direct PDF link here). The infamous "loophole" for draft picks who leave college early appears to have ... well not quite closed, but it's been clarified and addressed a little bit.
Call it the "Blake Wheeler Loophole," or for Islanders fans it could have been the Anders Lee Loophole before the Notre Dame star signed this past spring. Whatever you call it, the new CBA has much more clarity and limits how a draft pick can get most of a college education and then declare himself open to any bidder heading into free agency the fourth summer after he's drafted.
(Mind you, an NCAA-enrolled prospect can still decline to sign with his drafting team, just as any junior player or European player in a transfer agreement country can decline to sign after two years. But the incentive for a serious degree-seeking college student to do so is now even smaller.)
Essentially, while a Justin Schultz can still pull a Justin Schultz after one junior year plus three NCAA years, the CBA now explicitly spells out that a traditional college player (i.e. one who becomes a freshman the year he is drafted in the NHL) cannot get four years of education and then bail on that final capstone class to become a free agent before NHL free agency starts in July.
The way it always was: An NHL team has the rights to a traditional college player until Aug. 15 after he graduates.
The way it is now: If that traditional college player tries to do a Schultz late in his senior year (so, after he's accumulated most of his credits), his rights are still held until Aug. 15, rather than until June 1.
That distinction is important because Aug. 15 comes after the bulk of free agent signings are made. June 1, in contrast, arrives before free agency season opens.
This is going to be a lot of legalese, so you might want to read this while sitting in a dentist's chair.
Old Rule: 2005 CBA
Here is how it looked in the CBA that expired in September 2012:
8.6(c) College Players
(iii) If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and remains a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain the exclusive rights of negotiation for his services through and including the August 15 following the graduation of his college class.
(iv) If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft.
I'm selecting for ease of comprehension, but (iii) above essentially refers to draftees who do their full four years of college, regardless of whether they did a gap year in the USHL or something, whereas (iv) refers to kids finishing high school after their draft selection or, more common, playing a year in the USHL (as Anders Lee did) before heading to college, but depart college before finishing up.
New CBA: The same, but slightly different
The rule in (iii) -- for traditional college players who do not play in the USHL after being drafted -- remains the same in the new CBA. But here is how the new CBA treats the next section (emphasis and line breaks mine, in a futile attempt at clarity):
8.6 (c) (iv)
If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the later of:
(a) the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft,
or (b) thirty (30) days after NHL Central Registry receives notice that the Player is no longer a bona fide college student;
provided that **IF** the Player ceases to be a bona fide college student on or after January 1 of an academic year and the Player:
(1) is in his fourth year of college and has commenced his fourth year of NCAA eligibility,
or (2) is in his fourth year of college and is scheduled to graduate from college at the end of his fourth year, then in the circumstances described in (1) or (2), the Club shall retain the exclusive right of negotiation for such Player's services through and including the August 15 following the date on which he ceases to be a bona fide college student.
(The 30 days point is interesting, because you used to hear media refer to a 30-day notice under the old CBA, but that was not actually in the CBA. If it was a rule before, it wasn't written in the published document.)
Anyway, if I'm reading this right -- and Bossy knows that's always iffy when dealing with CBA-ese -- the CBA ensures that if a prospect legitimately wants to leave college in his third college year (if he did a post-draft USHL year, thus making his third college year his "fourth" June 1) -- or even in his fourth year if he quits college before January 1 -- to start his career, he can still do so and, if not signed by his drafting club by June 1, he is free to shop his services.
However, a prospect who is completing all his credits (or very nearly) as a senior in college (so, he stayed enrolled past Jan. 1 his fourth year, probably because he wanted to finish his hockey season first), cannot then use the loophole to "leave college" early and become a free agent on June 1. Such a player's rights would be held through Aug. 15.
As fans we tend to wring our hands over "loopholes" and stuff like this because we want all the marbles and all the prospects and all the indentured servants to be ours, ours, mine mine mine.
But this clause has always tried to strike a balance between two things: 1) Most prospects' rights are held for only two years, and 2) Most college players will inherently not want to sign until beyond two years (They're in college! Someone is probably paying for their degree!).
So if you decide college isn't your thing anymore, the NHL says you still belong to your drafting team -- unless you've put in three years (for USHL or junior B-type players) or four years (for traditional college-bound draftees) without your drafting team coaxing you out of college already. I've always read that minor "loophole" as some sort of recognition for the fact that a prospect in his fourth June 1 since his draft has already given up some earning potential by pursuing his degree through age 21-23 instead of taking an ELC at age 18-20.
What the new CBA spells out is that a prospect cannot go through the full college experience except for that final course or semester and then use this well-intentioned loophole to abandon his drafting team and shop his services to the highest bidder on June 1.
P.S. Definition of Terms: What a novel concept!
The new CBA actually goes further to define what is meant by "the graduation of his college class" -- almost as if someone was thinking of the bloggers! Here's a bit on that:
For purposes of the above provisions, the term "graduation of his college class" shall mean the class with which the Player is scheduled to graduate during his final semester of attendance (as opposed to his matriculating class (the class with which he is expected to graduate as of the date of his original enrollment)). For purposes of clarity, a Player's graduating class may change during his tenure in college
Furthermore, it even defines "scheduled to graduate" as being within 5 percent of the minimum credits required. As if to underline my final point above, that players who do everything but complete that final blow-off basket-weaving course cannot wiggle their way to free agency in June.
P.P.S.: Anders Lee's ELC is half-way through
One more note on this topic, and a pretty good reason why Lee signed this spring: At his age, his ELC was only two years (as opposed to three years for a younger prospect age 18-21). There was a misconception when he signed that his ELC could "slide" (like Ryan Strome's and Nino Niederreiter's his first year) if Lee didn't play 10 NHL games, or 6 games in the lockout-shortened season.
Just to reiterate one more time: That is not the case. The "slide" rule only applies to players who sign at age 18 or 19. Lee is and was 22 when he signed. Though he earned nowhere near his full $900,000 NHL salary thanks to signing so late in the season, the first year of his contract has been consumed. He'll be a restricted free agent in summer of 2014. (Hey, even CapGeek says so.)
This, by the way, is a good reason for players like him not to take the loophole route unless they really want to avoid a team. He's one year closer to his next contract than he would have been had he opted out and signed with someone else this summer. Oh, and he got his first NHL goal on home ice and pocketed a nice signing bonus that is higher than the salary of most readers of this site. Which is nice.