July 1st could not come any sooner for defenseman Justin Schultz. He’s about to hit the jackpot.

No, Schultz won’t be making any more than the maximum salary allotted to rookies, nor will he receive any higher salary than any good prospect. He will, however, control his destiny.

Back on May 25th, the 21-year-old prospect filed his paperwork to leave the University of Wisconsin, and Schultz should be one of the more intriguing names this postseason. The Anaheim Ducks, an afterthought as the club that selected Schultz 43rd overall in 2008, hold his exclusive negotiating rights until June 24th. But we know how this story goes: Schultz is a top prospect, a can’t-miss puck-mover capable of stepping right into an NHL lineup, and all the pucks are in his corner.

The Ducks took Schultz as a slam-dunk pick on that fateful night in June of ’08. At 17, he earned top honors as the Top Defenseman of his BCHL conference, and according to Hockey’s Future, his offensive upside almost propelled him into a first round selection. Still, he was a very raw kid who needed to play another season in juniors before making the leap to Wisconsin; an investment the Ducks were willing to make.

Schultz, by all accounts, made the Ducks scouting look great. He earned important minutes during his freshman year at Wisconsin, a tough task considering it already bolstered current NHLers like Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner and Brendan Smith. The competition was fierce, but Schultz improved every season of his NCAA career, earning accolades like WCHA Defensive Player of the Year, and the prestigious WCHA and NCAA West First All-Star teams.

Again, Schultz is a can’t-miss prospect. One that all 30 teams are sure to woo in an attempt to make him a cornerstone of their blue line. He’s a right-handed shot who plays a solid two-way game, combining the smarts of college hockey and good ol’ know how as a Canadian native. In short, he’s on every team’s wishlist.

But is the current CBA loophole that allows players to leave school, spurn their current team, and sign with whatever club really fair? Should this rule be amended in the upcoming CBA negotiations to protect a team like the Ducks who, almost certainly, penciled Schultz into their plans for the better part of this decade?

Before we can answer those questions, let’s take a look at how we got into this mess.

Wheeler's footsteps led the way for Schultz Photo Credit: BridgetDS/photoree

Blake Wheeler and a Very Dangerous Precedent

Blake Wheeler is a special case. The Phoenix Coyotes saw enough in the youngster to spend the fifth overall pick on him during the 2004 NHL Draft. Wayne Gretzky himself, then the coach of the ‘Yotes, stepped up to the podium and made Wheeler the highest selected high school player in 21 years (Brian Lawton went 1st overall in 1983). The risk was huge and the player was raw, but the Coyotes liked the thought of a big, strong forward with an immeasurable skill-set.

Like Schultz, Wheeler was drafted at a younger age and still needed a year in juniors before going to school. Wheeler played in the USHL for the Green Bay Gamblers before ultimately taking the NCAA route at the University of Minnesota. After his junior year with Minnesota, Wheeler opted to leave the school and expose a dangerous flaw in the CBA. The aforementioned flaw — or loophole if you dare — allows college players to become free agents four seasons after they were drafted, explaining why Schultz can sign with any team on July 1st.

In lieu of the loophole, the only way college players could choose their own destiny was to actually graduate. The CBA stipulates that a graduating player would become a free agent by August 15th of their graduating year. Players like Bill Sweatt, Joey Crabb, and countless others used this rule to gain better leverage on their entry-level contract. They no longer would be forced to sign rookie minimum deals due to the potential for other suitors. This manner of changing organizations has always been seen as acceptable, but that hasn’t stopped others from exploiting the Wheeler precedent.

Last season, a pair of New York Islanders prospects — Jason Gregoire and Blake Kessel — chose to forego their final year of school and spurn their original organization. Gregoire would sign on with his hometown team in the Winnipeg Jets while Kessel became a product of the Philadelphia Flyers. And while neither player found their way into an NHL game last year, you can bet the Islanders would have reaped the rewards of their selections playing in their system. The Isles were patient enough to allow these kids to play in juniors and then start their NCAA career, but they still found a way out of repaying them.

Such actions could be seen as unethical. The purpose of the NHL draft is to restock the cupboards of struggling teams. If you finish 30th, the consolation always remains grabbing a stud prospect capable of changing the organizational outlook. And while these players aren’t technically circumventing the CBA, they are entering into a moral gray area. However, Wheeler isn’t the first player to force his way out of a bad situation, and he won’t be the last.

In fact, he wasn’t even the first player to exploit a flaw in the CBA. In the past, college players were typically taken a year later, playing their freshman season at age 19. And at an older age, some college players were perhaps a year wiser. Players like Ben Clymer and more famously Mike Van Ryn, left college for major juniors, turning pro after their overage seasons in the CHL. Because the CBA allowed overage players to become UFAs, college level players simply had to switch their allegiance and wait an extra year in order to sign with any team they want, at the price they felt they deserved. The Van Ryn rule was quickly amended, but it didn’t necessarily stop players from weaseling their way out of their current path.

Erixon forced his way out of Calgary. (NHL)

It Just Isn’t Working Out

Around this time last summer, the Calgary Flames were faced with the difficult task of signing their top prospect Tim Erixon. Erixon, who was taken 23rd overall in 2009, simply did not want to play in Western Canada. A second generation player bound to make the NHL in a year or two, Erixon could opt to not sign with Calgary and re-enter the draft, or force his team’s hand and trade him.

Erixon chose the latter and was sent to the New York Rangers — the sweater his father donned for all 10 years of his NHL career. The Flames would have lost Erixon for a pittance as the compensation for not signing a first round pick is a second round selection. In Erixon’s case it would have been the 53rd overall pick, less value than their current asset– a prospect that would have been taken in the top 10 of the 2011 NHL Draft. Therefore, a package of Roman Horak and two second round picks was enough to persuade the Flames to move their #1 prospect.

Like the Wheeler precedent, forcing his way out of Calgary puts Erixon in a morally gray area. But Erixon wasn’t the first to commit such a devious crime.

Over 20 years ago, first overall pick Eric Lindros famously refused the Quebec Nordiques. Lindros, labeled as a bona fide franchise player was the obvious pick in the 1991 NHL Draft. He was huge with great hands, and most importantly, a pivot capable of dominating play. The Nordiques were quite happy with their draft choice until they found out he wanted no part of the Nordiques, Quebec, or anything to do with the French Canadian culture offered to him. He sat out a complete season before getting traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for a king’s ransom.

Lindros, Erixon, and the less publicized others who chose not to play for small-market organizations are the exception, not the rule. Typically a rebuilding team will give a young player every opportunity to get their feet wet at the professional level. Moreover, a rebuilding team will provide that young player with additional minutes as they try to build said player, and the team by proxy, into a winner. Hockey, more than most sports, builds through the draft and lends a helping hand to struggling, small market teams. Otherwise, teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets, the Islanders, and a few others could ultimately be in danger of folding due to their depreciated product.

Is there anything the NHL can do to alleviate this problem and prevent players from leaving the team that drafted them?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will be at the forefront of the upcoming CBA negotiations (Photo Credit: VancityAllie@flickr)

The Endless CBA Implications

This rendition of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA, between the NHLPA and the NHL was originally ratified in 2005 following a gruesome, year-long work stoppage.  And while the CBA has been slightly amended with regards to the salary cap and how salaries count against it, the basic model is still very much in place. Several issues have changed since the dead-puck era of pre-2005, creating endless push-button topics to be debated over the always tiresome offseason. Regardless, it doesn’t feel like the Wheeler precedent will be one of those many issues at the forefront.

Article 8.6 (c) (iv) is very clear in its meaning, but not necessarily the actions it caused. From the CBA:

If a player drafted at 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 negotiation of his services until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft.

As we mentioned, Wheeler’s exodus from Phoenix created a very dangerous precedent. But has the NHL already internally corrected the problem?

Of the 2009 draftees, there are very few college-drafted prospects in danger of becoming free agents. Every first round pick — a crop that includes such talented skaters as Chris Kreider, Nick Leddy, Louis Leblanc, and John Moore, among others — has been either signed to an entry-level deal or relocated to major juniors before then inking a contract and turning pro. The only player even close to escaping the grasp of his NHL counterpart was Kreider, who now famously signed with the Rangers after taking the NCAA title. And even Kreider wouldn’t have qualified for the loophole since he didn’t play a year of juniors before turning pro.

The next player to likely to flee his organization could be Anders Lee, who currently plays for Notre Dame. Taken in the 6th round in 2009 by the Islanders, Lee played an additional year in juniors with the Green Bay Gamblers before establishing himself in the CCHA. Lee could, in theory, leave school following his junior year and have his pick of 30 teams. At this point, the center has done nothing to state his intentions, but spurning the Isles remains within the realm of possibility.

Surely, the Islanders, and other similar organizations, should be protected. But at what cost? Do we tether prospects to their teams for exorbitant amount of time? That solution would then look like a gross overreaction to a few choice players essentially getting their way.

In this case, the only way to eradicate the Wheeler precedent is to modify the above paragraph. A team that sticks with a player through a season of juniors and three in the NCAA should not be weakened for their patience, they should receive the player they originally invested in. The only solution is to correct said wording and leave it less open for interpretation.

That modification won’t prevent players like Erixon and Lindros wanting out of their situation, but it is a start. Generally speaking, they are entitled to their opinions and their need to seek further options. Hockey remains a team sport that requires cohesiveness, and not tolling a player into a lackadaisical effort. No coach wants a sulking, unhappy player on their bench, regardless of the talent level.

Hopefully the NHL and NHLPA can find the time this summer to modify this silly oversight in the middle of their bickering over relocation, salaries, and player safety. The Ducks, Islanders, and Coyotes certainly won’t complain.

  • meh

    Yeah, I think this is not an issue. Any player that is drafted and unsigned can become a free agent after four years – not just college draftees. The previous CBA actually did have a loophole that none of the GM’s noticed until Mike Van Ryn took the league to court and got a judge to declare him an unrestricted free agent. The league was fully aware that unsigned players could use this clause to become a UFA when they renegotiated the CBA in 2005.

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  • LukeTheDrifter

    I don’t see anything wrong with a drafted player that goes to university and after 4 years can become a free agent. The drafting club has spent nothing on him. They had four years to make him a good offer.

  • pmac

    The Isles were patient enough to allow these kids to play in juniors and then start their NCAA career, but they still found a way out of repaying them.”

    Patient enough???????? They didn’t have a damn choice! The Players didn’t sign! they could do whatever the hell they wanted to.

    What? Should these players have to repay the teams for the simple fact that the team drafted them?

    Heck in Baseball if the Player doesn’t sign with the team almost right away they go back into the draft for the next year!

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