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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The New Reality on Entry Level Free Agents

Tyler Bozak was Brian Burke's
First Entry Level Free Agent Signing
It is time for NHL managers to rely more on signing amateur free agents to acquire prospects.  Signing amateur free agents allows you to fast track talent onto your NHL roster; lower cap salaries; and cycle more prospects through your 50-player roster.

There has been a growing buzz around Entry Level free agents over the past year.  Some NHL teams have become more aggressive in their pursuit.  Tyler Bozak, Brad Thiessen, and Bobby Butler are some of the most notable examples.

Hockey experts such as Bill Watters and Damien Cox have done their best to tamp down expectations on the potential of these Entry Level free agents.  Cox notes that Entry Level free agents have a tradition of delivering disappointing results.  Watters sites research showing 97% of Entry Level free agent signings never make it to the NHL.  In short, they consider Entry Level free agent signings to be marginal transactions with a low (3%) chance of succeeding.  NHL teams rarely overlook players with true potential at the NHL Entry Draft.

I believe anyone with foresight will change their thinking in spite of the strong “history” against Entry Level free agents.

There was brief time in NHL history where undrafted players were the difference between winning and losing.  Calgary Flames made it to the Stanley Cup finals in the 1985-86 NHL season with seven undrafted players on their playing roster.  St. Louis Blues had three undrafted players when they made it to the conference finals to face Calgary.  Philadelphia Flyer’s Tim Kerr, another undrafted player, scored 58 goals that season.  Minnesota North Stars had two 40-goal scorers who were undrafted players.  One was eventual Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee Dino Ciccarelli.

What made the mid-80s an exceptional time for undrafted players?

In the summer of 1979, the NHL transitioned from the Amateur Draft to the Entry Draft.  The amateur draft in the 70s did not limit the number of rounds for team selections.  Also, only players over the age of 19 were eligible for selection.  The draft ended when everyone got tired of making selections.  Even if only one team selected an amateur player, the draft continued to another round.  Most teams made selections in the first 15 rounds.  Some would select players for as many as 25 rounds.

In 1979, the NHL switched to an Entry Draft from the Amateur Draft.  It was limited to six rounds.  Most noteworthy, the NHL lowered the age of eligibility by one year.  This was to avoid a legal dispute with Michel Goulet.  This resulted in a double cohort of 19 and 20 year olds.

The following year, the NHL increased the rounds to 11 and lowered the age requirement to 18 years old.  This created another double cohort of sorts.

These events had the greatest impact on players born between 1959 and 1961.  Many quality NHL prospects from these birth years went undrafted.  Players reach their peak performance years between the ages of 24 and 26.  The 1985-86 season was the time when all the undrafted players born between 1959 and 1961 were playing at their peak performance.

In all, there were 32 undrafted players from this age group playing as regulars that NHL season.  Far exceeding the 3% success rate in my estimation.  It was no wonder they had a significant impact on the 1985-86 season.

How does this relate to today?

In 2005, the NHL reduced the Entry Draft to seven rounds from the previous nine.  Although not as impactful as the changes introduced in 1979, it is the second most impactful rule change for undrafted players.  The greatest impact is on players born after 1986.  It also affected players born in 1985 and 1986 to a lesser extent.

9.7% of the players selected in the last two rounds of the nine-round Entry Drafts from 1995 to 2004 became regular NHLers.  Dustin Byufeglin, Jaroslav Halak, Matt Moulson, Pekke Rinne, Tobias Enstrom, Dennis Wideman, George Parros, Michael Ryder, Sami Salo, and Tomas Kaberle are some of the prominent players selected from these rounds.

Only a foolish NHL manager or one with serious budget constraints passes on these players when they are available as Entry Level Free Agents.

Other Advantages to Undrafted Players

You can manage your cap level more effectively when you have a player on your NHL roster between the ages 22 and 24 at an NHL Entry Level contract.  Your cap hit will be under $1.8 mil.  Plus, their bonuses allow you to go over the cap with the carry-over bonus cushion.

These free agent signings also help manage your 50-player roster.  They need fewer years of professional hockey to develop.  Many of them are only two years away from their peak performance years.  You need less time to determine if they are NHL players.

Another advantage of Entry Level free agents is getting a jump on other teams for promising young players.  Toronto did this recently with 18-year-old Andrew Crescenzi.  No team selected him in this year’s Entry Draft.  However, Toronto wanted to acquire him.  Instead of waiting for the next Entry Draft to select Andrew at the age of 19, Toronto signed him now as a free agent.


It only makes sense to pursue more Entry Level free agents when you draft fewer players.  Teams with the largest budget gain advantage when every team shares this predicament.  The initial wave of this new class of undrafted player is now 23 to 25 years old.  Brian Burke’s vigourous pursuit of these players resulted in nine players on the franchise roster: Jonus Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Brayden Irwin, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Marcel Mueller, Simon Gysbers, and Andrew Crescenzi.  Three of them are on the NHL Roster.  Expect many more to be signed.

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Follow-up on Trade Rumours

SportsHaze writer Raihan Hussain made some interesting reports in his recent post

He reports Carl Gunnarson interests Boston Bruins who are shopping Blake Wheeler to Toronto.  Acquiring Gunnarson will give Boston a lot of cap flexibility because of his low cap salary and two-way contract.

Raihan also reports Tomas Kaberle still interests New Jersey Devils.  New Jersey having the worst NHL power play must be feeding this interest.  I still contend New Jersey will have to part with Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus to acquire Tomas Kaberle and resolve their cap problem.  They must make a deal by eighth of December if they want Toronto’s help with their cap problem.

Trade Rumour Sites

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  1. I agree with your comment about undrafted free agents making the most sense for teams with a reduced number of picks.

    I think where you have a real opportunity to hit a homerun with an undrafted free agent is in goal, particularly if the goalie is european. I wrote a post about the number of late/undrafted goalies that have locked down starting positions in the league and the numbers of Europeans among them are staggering.

  2. I noticed the stark contrast between European goalies vs others as well. Fully agree.

    Also, there has been a trend of reducing draft picks for the whole league. Let's see what happens on the next CBA. It will benefit Toronto if it is lowered to six.

    Tyler Bozak's $3.725 cap salary made me believe Entry Level Free Agents were too expensive until I read Mirtle's article showing how Bozak will only be a $1.725 mil cap hit this year.

    Final thoughts. Burke's approach to acquiring goaltenders Gustavsson, Rynnas, and Scrivens sure beats how we acquired Andrew Raycroft, Tuka Rask, and Vesa Toskola.

    Link to Curt S post. Good read.

    Also, Blue Chip Prospects provides an excellent list of Leafs blogs.