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The NHL should copy MLB’s Rule 5 draft

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A half-baked idea to increase player movement

Columbus Blue Jackets v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

To fill the hockey void in the summer months, I spend most of my evenings watching baseball. As a kid I watched Cleveland win a couple of pennants and I was hooked for life (Go Guardians!). As I read this article at The Athletic by Zack Meisel concerning the 40 man roster, and thought about Calvin Thurkauf returning to Switzerland after getting few chances to play in Columbus, it inspired me to contemplate the NHL copying Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft.

40 Man Roster? Rule 5 Draft? What?

Ok, let’s back up. MLB teams carry 26 players on their active roster, and have up to 40 players under contract. Players on the injured list do not count against the 26 man active roster, and players on the 60 day injured list (their equivalent of LTIR) do not count against the 40 man roster. Each team holds the rights to players on all four of their minor league affiliates, but the ones on the 40 man roster are usually the ones that get called up first.

The 40 man roster is especially important in the offseason due to the Rule 5 draft. The full rules are at the link, but the short version is that any player who has been signed for four or five years but is not on a 40 man roster is eligible to be drafted by another team, provided that team carries him on their 26 man roster for the full season. The team that loses a player receives cash compensation, and has the option to re-acquire the player if the new team tries to send him down to the minor leagues.

What’s the benefit of this?

Obviously it’s a big win for the player. First, the player finally gets their opportunity to get regular playing time on a Major League roster. No more worries about being stuck in AAA because your parent club has an All Star at your position. Currently, to reach UFA you have to be 27 years old, OR have seven years of professional experience, OR be at least 25 years old with three years of experience but fewer than 80 NHL games played. Since NHL GMs are so hesitant to sign players to offer sheets, players are stuck in one spot until well into their peak years unless they demand a trade (which doesn’t go over well in hockey culture).

In addition, baseball is even worse than hockey in the disparity between major and minor league salaries and perks. No more worries about spending your paycheck on temporary housing and food, no more long bus rides between games. You get first class hotels, charter flights, and extra cash to spare.

For teams, it gives them a quick way to acquire cheap, young talent to fill a position of need. Most of these players don’t become stars (Johan Santana is one of the most high profile exceptions), but some become solid role players. Teams can trade a player they pick, so you often see a team drafting a player on behalf of another team, and they get a prospect or cash considerations in return. Other teams with stacked pipelines may trade prospects before the draft, in order to get a better return for a player they could lose via the draft. Either way, these deals present the player with a new opportunity.

What’s really the reason you want this?

I keep thinking about this tweet, which was posted before this summer’s Expansion Draft:

It was HIGHLY entertaining to see the way GMs frantically shuffled to move players before submitting their protection lists, and then to see all of the big names (and big contracts) who were left exposed for Seattle. Just imagine how awkward it must me to have a conversation with someone like Carey Price or Ryan Johansen about not being protected. It’s a damn shame if we are deprived of an exercise like that for the foreseeable future.

A team like Tampa Bay has done a great job of drafting and development, and was able to supplement their highly-paid stars with players who had marinated for years in Syracuse, like Ross Colton. What if they had to lose more players from the Crunch each summer, or trade veteran players to make room for them?

On the flip side, a team like Columbus could use a Rule 5 draft to supplement their ongoing rebuild. They can fill in roster holes with unrestricted free agents who are over 27, or they could pick up a 24 year old player with multiple years of AHL experience who would otherwise be under team control elsewhere.

How would it work, exactly?

This is very much a half-baked idea, so I’ve spent the least time thinking about the actual mechanics of this. I think MLB’s timeframe of four to five years is pretty close to the maximum time for a draft pick to make it to the NHL. Instead of total service time, however, I would go by expiration of the player’s entry level contract. As I learned from CapFriendly’s handy CBA FAQ, an ELC signed between ages 18-21 has a term of three years (but it can “slide” if the player is 18 or 19 and plays fewer than 10 NHL games). At 22 or 23, it is a two year term, and beyond that it is just a one year contract.

Let’s say that a player is eligible for the draft if their ELC has expired and they have at least two seasons of AHL or NHL experience.

Next, we have to think about who teams can protect. NHL teams have a 23 man active roster, up to 50 standard player contracts, and up to 90 players on their reserve list (this includes players under contract as well as drafted players who are unsigned but whose rights the team possesses). Due to my rule about the player having North American pro experience, we don’t have to worry about drafted players in NCAA or Europe, or the players in the CHL or Europe who have signed ELCs, but have not reached the NHL.

I am leaning towards a 28 man protected list, which would allow five AHL prospects to be protected. In MLB, you cannot draft a player if you already have a full 40 man roster. We could enforce the same rule here, so any team looking to add a player would have to expose more of their own AHL prospects.

OK, your turn

Any questions about my plans? Any major flaws which I haven’t seen yet?

Are there any other rules from other leagues that you would like to introduce to the NHL?