Chapter 2 of this FAQ is going to focus on what RFA status means and how RFA status is determined. RFA contract negotiations will be discussed in Chapter 3.Special Definition for Article 10:
From Section 10.2.a: "First SPC Signing Age" means a Player's age on September 15 of the calendar year in which he signs an SPC regardless of his actual age on the date he signs such SPC.
Any player who will not qualify for UFA status at the end of their current contract, or most recent contract if it has already expired, but has met the experience requirements to become a free agent, will be an RFA and will be subject to the negotiating limitations discussed in CBA Article 10. Unless the player qualifies for "Defected Player" status, as defined later in this article, they will be a Group 2 RFA.
This is the standard category for players who are under 27 years of age (on June 30th) and have less than seven (7) years of NHL experience; assuming they do not meet the special requirements for Group 6 UFA status.
To qualify to become a Group 2 RFA, a player must meet the experience requirements to become a free agent. From 10.2.a.i:
(i) (A) Any Player who meets the qualifications set forth in the following chart and:
(1) is not a Group 1 Player or a Group 4 Player, and
(2) is not an Unrestricted Free Agent, shall be deemed to be a "Group 2 Player" and shall, at the expiration of his SPC, become a Restricted Free Agent. ...
First SPC Signing Age Eligible for Group 2 Free Agency
18 - 21 3 years professional experience
22 - 23 2 years professional experience
24 or older 1 year professional experience
For the purposes of this Section 10.2(a), a Player aged 18 or 19 earns a year of professional experience by playing ten (10) or more NHL Games in a given NHL Season, and a Player aged 20 or older (or who turns 20 between September 16 and December 31 of the year in which he signs his first SPC) earns a year of professional experience by playing ten (10) or more Professional Games under an SPC in a given League Year.
These requirements are the same as the length of time that a player must stay in the Entry Level system and the mandated duration of his ELC, as defined in Article 9. So if a player does not meet these requirements, he’s still party to an ELC and is not a free agent at all.
An RFA continues to have an obligation to their current club even after their SPC expires. Even though they are a free agent and are not currently signed to an SPC, their club owns their rights and can prevent them from signing with another team. In these cases, the clubs hold more leverage than the player does.
Yes, they are free to negotiate with other teams, but they are limited by the privileges held by their parent club. As defined in Section 10.2.a:
Any such Player shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any Club, and any Club shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any such Player, subject to the provisions set forth in this Section.
This definition is inherently misleading, because it makes RFA negotiations seem like a straightforward process. The provisions referred to in this definition are the processes of Offer Sheets, Right of First Refusal, and RFA Compensation; which will all be discussed individually.
Normally, a club maintains the negotiating rights to their RFAs by submitting them a Qualifying Offer prior to the expiration of their contract. This Qualifying Offer must meet the minimum criteria required for the individual player, determined by their previous salary (without bonuses) and accounting for their playing experience.
Alternately, if the player is eligible for arbitration, the club can maintain their negotiating rights to a player using Club-Elected Salary Arbitration. In this case, the club does not have to issue a Qualifying Offer and the player is no longer free to negotiate with any other club in the league. No player can be subjected to club-elected arbitration more than once in their career, even if they settle before the hearing takes place, as defined in Section 12.3.c.
As defined in Section 10.2.a.(ii):
In order to receive a Right of First Refusal or Draft Choice Compensation, the Prior Club of a Restricted Free Agent must tender to the Player, no later than 5:00 p.m. New York time on the later of June 25 or the first Monday after the Entry Draft of the final year of the Player's SPC, a "Qualifying Offer" ...
The Player immediately becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent, as defined in Section 10.2.a.(iv):
In the event a Prior Club fails to make a Qualifying Offer as set forth in this Section 10.2 and fails to elect salary arbitration pursuant to Section 12.3(a), the Player shall immediately become an Unrestricted Free Agent and shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any Club, and any Club shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any such Player, without penalty or restriction or being subject to any Right of First Refusal, Draft Choice Compensation, or any other compensation or equalization obligation of any kind.
If the player signs a new SPC that will expire before they meet the qualifications for UFA status, they will once again be subject to restricted free agency and their rights will be owned by their new team.
Arbitration is only available to RFAs, but an individual must meet the experience requirements defined in Section 12.1.a:
(a) A Player is eligible for salary arbitration if the Player meets the qualifications set forth in the following chart and in Section 12.1(b) below:
First SPC Signing Age Minimum to be Eligible for Salary Arbitration
18-20 4 years professional experience
21 3 years professional experience
22-23 2 years professional experience
24 and older 1 year professional experience
This topic will be fully discussed as part of Salary Arbitration. Please note that a player who signs their Entry Level Contract at age 18, 19, or 20 cannot be eligible for arbitration at the expiration of their ELC, because an ELC has a maximum length of 3 years.
A Defected Player is any player who has unfulfilled obligations to an NHL team, and is either not playing or playing outside of North America while contracted to another team. Due to the lengthy nature of this topic, it will be covered in its own section.
The rights to a Defected or Group 4 player can last indefinitely, but only if the club chooses to maintain them. Whenever that player’s contract to a club outside of North America ends (either by expiring or the club and/or league folds), the club owning his rights must extend him a minimum Qualifying Offer. If they do so, they continue to retain his rights and the Right of First Refusal if he signs with another NHL club.
Disclaimer: The content in this CBA FAQ is based on my own interpretation of the wording in the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, unless a link to the source of another person's interpretation is explicitly provided. The full PDF document of the 2005 CBA is available for public download from the CBA section of NHL.com. I will do my best to ensure the accuracy of each article, but I welcome any comments, feedback, and discussion to improve and/or correct each section.