Earlier this month, Sportsnet ran a piece on why teams would be less likely to trade for the negotiating rights to upcoming unrestricted free agents (UFAs). It stated that the UFA negotiating window that begins five days before the free agent period, introduced in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), would take its place. With teams being given a small window to negotiate with players before they are allowed to sign a contract, they wouldn’t need to pay a price to get an exclusive right to negotiate a contract with a potential free agent.
Fast forward two weeks and three player’s exclusive negotiating rights have been traded before the negotiating window is set to open on June 25. On June 16, the Arizona Coyotes acquired the rights to defenseman Alex Goligoski from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a 5th round pick (#128 overall) in this year’s draft. Then on June 20, the Buffalo Sabres acquired the rights to forward Jimmy Vesey from the Nashville Predators in exchange for a 3rd round pick (#76 overall) in this year’s draft. Later that day, the Florida Panthers acquired the rights to defenseman Keith Yandle from the New York Rangers in exchange for a 6th round pick in this year’s draft and a 4th round pick in next year’s draft conditional on the fact of Yandle signing in Florida.
Getting exclusive privilege to talk to free agents remains a useful tool for General Managers that have identified specific players they want to target on the free agent market. A player is likely to get numerous suitors on the open market and may not pay one specific team enough attention without having the exclusive right to negotiate with the player. This allows a team to get their foot in the door and attempt to sell the player on their organization, city, and fan base. This is especially useful for smaller market teams who would have little chance to compete against other teams on the open market.
The return for a player’s negotiating rights have varied over the past decade but often include a middle-to-late round draft pick and/or a draft pick conditional on said player signing with the receiving team. As mid-to-late round draft picks have a below average percent chance of turning into a regular NHL player, it is a low cost for an established NHL player who can have an immediate impact to a team.
General Managers continue to trade for a player’s negotiating rights because it has worked in the past. Over the past seven summers, 16 player’s rights have been dealt before the free agent period (17 total trades were made as Dan Hamhuis’ rights were dealt twice in 2009. Nashville dealt him to Philadelphia, who in return dealt him to Pittsburgh after unsuccessfully signing him). Of the 16 players, 13 players signed with the trading team and 12 were before free agency begun (Jordan Leopold chose to test the free agent market after his rights were acquired by Calgary but eventually signed a one year deal with them on the second day of free agency). That is a 81% success rate which is well worth the risk of potentially not getting a deal done and the cost of acquiring the player’s negotiating rights.
Two teams that have taken advantage of this are the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals. The Islanders are two for three in negotiating contracts with acquired free agents (Mark Streit and Jaroslav Halak were signed to 4-year deals, where Dan Boyle chose to hit the open market and ended up signing with the New York Rangers). On the other side, the Capitals have recouped three draft picks and a prospect in exchange for the negotiation rights of free agents (Jaroslav Halak, Dennis Wideman, and Tomas Vokoun) that they decided weren’t a part of their future.
The Coyotes and Panthers are on the clock as their exclusive window to speak with Goligoski and Yandle respectively ends at 12:00am on June 25th when the UFA negotiating window opens and other teams are allowed to talk to free agents. Vesey is in a different category as four year college players that don’t sign with the team that drafted them become free agents on August 15th following their senior year and his agent has already said he will be testing free agency. That didn’t stop the Sabres from acquiring his rights in attempt to persuade him to sign early.
Update: Alex Goligoski and the Arizona Coyotes have agreed to a 5-year, $27.375M deal (5.475 AAV) on June 21, well before the exclusive negotiation window ends.
Update: Keith Yandle and the Florida Panthers have agreed to a 7-year, $44.45M deal ($6.35M AAV) on June 22, also well before the exclusive negotiation window ends.
Going forward, General Managers will continue to trade for a free agent’s negotiating rights as long as players continue to sign with the team that trades with them. If a period begins where players are less likely to sign with a new club before reaching free agency, General Managers may use this tool less often, save their draft picks and wait until the UFA negotiating window to sell their organization to potential free agents.
Follow Steve Ness on Twitter: @QuickkNess