Some fans may end up hating Morgan Rielly (above), but it’s not his fault.
There hasn’t been a puck dropped or a skate laced for the NHL season yet, and yet some NHL fans are hopping mad about something. It’s not the lockout, it’s not a signing that their team made over the summer, it’s not ticket prices.
It’s Entry Level Contracts, or ELCs.
Any player who signs with the team he was drafted by signs an Entry Level Contract. Depending on a player’s age, it may go for one, two, or three years – contracts signed when a player is between 18 and 21 are 3 years.
Most of the best players in the league were originally on ELCs. The great thing about entry level deals is that there’s a yearly maximum a guy can be paid – as of 2011-12, a player could only receive a maximum salary of $925,000 per season. That’s an enormous bargain when we consider that players like John Tavares and Tyler Seguin were on ELCs last year.
Now the cap hit for one of these contracts is not always so small – ELCs can include bonuses up to $2.85 million per season, but even if they count on the cap, these bonuses are very difficult to attain so they may not represent real dollars. In addition, during some years in the last CBA, the salary cap has a ‘bonus cushion’ whereby teams can spend over the salary cap by a certain amount, provided that amount is in potential bonus money only. James Mirtle is reporting that the bonus cushion will apply in every year of the current CBA.
The other nice feature of the ELC is that a player can be signed to one after he is drafted, but if he is 18 or 19 and doesn’t play more than 9 NHL games in a given year, his contract ‘slides’ to the next year and he will still have 3 years remaining on it.
Smart NHL fans have made the calculation themselves – well, if you have a very high draft pick, like the Oilers seem to every year, why would you put him in the NHL right away? Your team is terrible – adding that player adds next to nothing to your playoff chances. Plus, you lose a year off his valuable ELC.
If you held that player out until he was 20, you’d get more bang for your buck – the kid figures to be better at 20 than he is at 18, and you still get him on the same cheap three year contract. Furthermore, a player can become an unrestricted free agent at age 27 or after 7 ‘Accrued Seasons’ (an accrued season being one where a player spent 40 or more games on the roster). Starting his clock at 18 means he will be an unrestricted free agent 2 years earlier than if he had started at 20, which means at the very least he’ll be more expensive when he’s 25, and he very well could leave in free agency.
So in summary, bringing an 18 year old to the NHL:
- Loses a year off his ELC, which tends to be a bargain, especially in ‘bonus cushion’ years
- Puts him a year closer to free agency
- Doesn’t often help teams, because players likely to be good NHLers at 18 were probably drafted really high in the draft, and one doesn’t often get a high draft pick without being terrible.
These effects are even more pronounced in a shortened season – not only will you be wasting a year of his ELC, he can’t even play 82 games in said season.
Get To The Stats, Already
I wanted to take a look at all the rookie seasons of more than 9 games by a player on an ELC between the 2004-05 and 2012 lockouts. I separated out the forwards and defensemen (No goalies meet the requirements).
Via hockey-reference.com, I looked at all players aged 18 and 19 whose contracts would have slid had they not played in the NHL that season. I counted players who played at 19 even though their contracts wouldn’t slide because they also played at 18 – the purpose was to count players whose careers could have started at 20.
63 forwards and 23 defensemen met the criteria.
Sure looks like a group of average players in agrregate, no? Obviously judging by ‘traditional’ stats isn’t always the best way to go, but the fact that we have the players’ ice time is quite helpful. Coaches aren’t perfect, but if anything, fans complain that they are biased against younger players.
This breaks down when you look at individual players – Nino Niederreiter’s 55 game, 1 goal, 0 assist, -29 season isn’t the same as Sidney Crosby’s Year two, 120 point season. Crosby should obviously be in the NHL, Niederreiter should not. Still, it’s clear these players as a sample overall are helping out their teams – they’re eating up a significant portion of ice time. It’s not easy for GMs to find players who can play this kind of ice time competently, and especially not easy to find them in September (or January, as the case may be) when all the desirable free agents have been lapped up.
So let’s get back to fans complaining that their team will burn ELCs – if management thinks the player can be an average NHLer or something close to it, they’ll probably go ahead and try him out at least for those first nine games where the contract can still slide if he gets sent back down. If he’s not looking out of place, he’ll stay. Truth be told, he probably won’t be all that bad.
Of course, in six years, when he’s an unrestricted free agent, and the GM who drafted him is probably no longer working for your team, you’ll have cause to gnash your teeth. Still, maybe fans should learn to accept and love it – after all, watching young players grow into NHLers is one of the joys of this game we’ve been missing for the last 3 months. Don’t pollute that by looking seven years down the road.