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Lord of the Ringers: NHLPA plans to contest NHL ruling on unsigned free-agents

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The NHL Players Association plans to take action on behalf of several free agents looking to start their NHL contacts as soon as possible.

2019/2020 Kontinental Hockey League: CSKA Moscow 6 - 0 HC Sochi
Almost there.
Photo by Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images

The NHL Players Association plans to take action on behalf of several free agents looking to start their NHL contacts as soon as possible. One of which being the Islanders star goalie prospect, 24-year-old Ilya Sorokin, along with a “handful” of other guys that NHL deputy commission Bill Daly has referred to as “ringers.”

On his Russo-Souhan Show podcast last week, Minnesota Wild beat writer Michael Russo talked about the NHLPA’s position in regards to Kirill Kaprizov, the Russian winger drafted by Minnesota who’s in the same boat as Sorokin. Russo was clear that the PA expects to make their case that free agents signed this year should be eligible to play, or at least join their teams in order to burn their ELCs faster and get to a richer second contract that much quicker.

You can listen to the whole show here, but this part starts at 21:35:

I can tell you that the NHLPA is going to fight it. Because the one thing is that this is an arbitrary decision by the NHL.

And we saw it last week. Again, the kid was signed last September but there’s really no difference between a Nick Robertson with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a Kirill Kaprizov, and an [Hab’s Alexander] Romanov and [Ilya] Sorokin and all these guys. They’re all reserve list players but suddenly, Robertson’s allowed to be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup. Now again, he was signed pre-pause but, for the NHL to just take a handful of guys - and again this is a handful of guys, none of these college free agents would have been eligible to play anyway in the playoffs. So these are only the three or four guys I mentioned, and a kid from the Florida Panthers, there’s only a handful of these guys that this affects. And so the NHLPA’s gonna fight it, because this is a collective bargaining issue.

But I think the NHLPA is taking this on. And I think where the NHLPA gets offended, and this is why I keep on writing the word every time, my source and then coincidentally Bill Daly said it the other day, calling them “ringers,” it really is for lack of a better term. It’s hard to call Cale Makar a “ringer,” it’s hard to call Chris Kreider a “ringer” and they all started. I get where the league was coming from here but this is still, in a normal situation, these players - if they were signed - would be eligible to play.

And now, if the NHLPA wins this fight and the NHL goes back on its decision to make guys like Kirill Kaprizov eligible, just imagine how ticked a team like the [Minnesota’s qualifyijng round opponents] Vancouver Canucks will be. So it’ll be interesting to see where it goes right now.

Let’s put it this way: Where before I thought it was pretty much one hundred percent that the NHL would never go back on a decision its made, we just saw them fold on their desire to have the NHL Draft before the NHL playoffs. So maybe they’ll change their mind on this as well because the NHLPA’s gonna to to town on it.

[Notes: The Panthers player Russo is referring to is winger Grigori Denisenko. Robertson, also a winger, was signed by Toronto earlier and is, in his mind, ready to play in the NHL playoffs, should they happen this year.]

There’s a lot to chew on in that segment but the bottom line is that the NHLPA doesn’t appear to be willing to let this thing go. We’ve often wondered why the league would change a longstanding rule now, and Russo’s use of the word “arbitrary” seems to echo the feelings a lot of us have about this.

I also get what he’s saying about other teams complaining that their playoff opponents may have just added a new secret sauce to their recipe. But in years past, players like Chris Kreider and Cale Makar were able to join their teams for the playoffs and weren’t considered “ringers.” A “ringer” is more like bringing in some delinquent to play on your little league team. Kelly Leak was a ringer.

In Sorokin’s case, as Arthur Staple wrote last week at The Athletic and reiterated on Monday, it’s unlikely that the Islanders would play him in a short series anyway and having him join the club is more about burning that ELC and starting a new contract next season.

First things first: Varlamov and Greiss are the Islanders goalies heading into the postseason. It would be so very out of character for Trotz or Lamoriello to go with an unknown like Sorokin over their two NHL veterans at such a crucial time.

Now, regarding Sorokin, who hasn’t signed a contract as of today: He’s still in limbo thanks to the NHL’s decision to change a longstanding league rule and not allow unsigned draft choices to sign 2019-20 contracts during the pause. The players’ association is going to fight the league on this seemingly arbitrary change — remember, Cale Makar made his NHL debut for the Avalanche in last season’s playoffs, so this avenue has been used very recently. The league and the PA have agreed to extend the deadline for signing such players from today until July 1, though in Sorokin’s case (as well as Kirill Kaprizov’s with the Wild and Grigori Denisenko with the Panthers) there’s the matter of securing a work visa and getting over to the States from Russia in the middle of a pandemic. So time is of the essence.

(BTW: Later in his podcast segment, Russo is adamant that the NHL will begin it’s next season in January, with or without the qualifying rounds/playoffs. So the Sorokin/Kaprizov timing and long layoff issue is very real).

Closer to (the Islanders) home, Larry Brooks also broached the subject this weekend, and wonders if the issue wouldn’t prevent the league and PA from resolving other matters.

So why change the rule now that, in fact, the league cannot change unilaterally? The PA will have to agree to the change that, if it goes into effect, would deny players the opportunity to burn the first year of their respective entry level contracts. The PA, we’re told, has no desire to agree to this change and intends to dig in. The union feels as strongly on this as does the league, which never mentioned the burn-year consideration while detailing its stance.

So this will become a matter of collective bargaining, linked to changing contract dates, linked to discussing whether signing bonuses due on July 1 will remain due on July 1, linked to smoothing 2019-20 escrow payments over multiple years rather than next season, as the CBA prescribes.

The league and the union have a mountain of critical issues to sort through in order to make summer hockey a reality. This contract matter may not rise to quite that level, but it surely is going to be contested. And if indeed this becomes a flashpoint of contention, this does not mean the union is no longer being “collaborative” or the players are being “selfish.”

Both Sorokin and Kaprizov, who are teammates on CSKA, want to come to the NHL. Their clubs and agents want them to come to the NHL. This rule change, as it stands now, is preventing them from doing so. The parties have apparently extended the deadline for these deals to be signed, so expect the negotiations to continue.

More Bits

  • For the record, this was very, very bad. This was much better. This is why.
  • And now for some good news: the Islanders Belmont Webcam is back online.
  • The NHL has made decisions on some conditional picks that changed hands before the pause. For example, if Vancouver beats Minnesota in the presumptive qualifying rounds, the Devils will get the Canucks’ first round pick, courtesy of the Blake Coleman trade with the Lightning. Got all that? [TSN.ca]
  • The Rangers have cut ties with defenseman Sean Day, who once upon a time was granted Exceptional Status in the OHL. [The Hockey News]