As the college and junior hockey seasons begin to come to a close in March, NHL teams have important decisions to make about their up and coming prospects. They can either shut their players down for the season or bring them up to the NHL/AHL to get a small preview of their playing potential at a higher level. This opportunity seems like a no brainer, especially for players management believe are too good for their current competition and are ready to make the next jump in their development to a professional league in the coming season.
When management makes the decision to audition a player at the next level, the only remaining hurdle is finalizing the prospect’s entry level contract (this issue is usually more prevalent for college hockey players as they can’t sign a professional contract while maintaining their amateurism where junior players have no restrictions). An entry level contract is limited by term (dependent on the prospect’s age at the date they sign the contract) and compensation but includes a provision for prospects aged 18 and 19 (as long as they don’t turn 20 before December 31 in the year they sign their first contract) that allows teams to slide the contract one year into the future if the player does not skate in a minimum of 10 NHL games (NHL CBA Article 9.1D).
Eligible prospects are allowed to skate in nine NHL games (combination of regular season and playoffs) without having the first year of their entry level contract kick in. For players that don’t qualify for the entry level contract slide, management has a much tougher decision to make. An older prospect’s contract will count against the salary cap during the season they dress for their first NHL game. In either case, this will not affect a player’s future unrestricted free agency as the requirements for most players (except Group 5 free agents but we expect these top prospects to play 80+ games before they turn 25) are seven accrued seasons in the league or turning 27 years old. A player must dress for 40 games in a season to accrue a season for free agency purposes and with only a handful games left in the schedule, this is impossible.