Zach Whitecloud signed a two-year extension with the Golden Knights on Sunday, securing the 23-year-old defenseman’s future with the team through the summer of 2022.
Even when his contract expires, however, Whitecloud likely isn’t going anywhere. That’s because in two years Whitecloud will be a restricted free agent — just like he would have been this summer without an extension.
Restricted free agency is different in the NHL and can be hard to get a grasp on, so here’s an explainer on how it works and affects the negotiating power of a player.
What is a restricted free agent?
A restricted free agent (RFA) is a player whose contract has expired but is not yet eligible to be an unrestricted free agent (UFA). As the names imply, an UFA is able to sign a contract with any team without limitations.
Certain conditions apply to an RFA’s signing power.
The short version is that if a team wants to have an RFA back for another season, it can. Some players are eligible for arbitration, which can raise their salary, or offer sheets, which allows an avenue for a team change. More on both of those routes later.
Do teams need to do anything to retain RFA players’ rights?
They need to tender a “qualifying offer” by either June 25 or the Monday after the NHL Entry Draft, whichever is later. If a team chooses not to tender the offer, the pending RFA would become a UFA. That rarely happens because not tendering the offer is essentially the same thing as releasing a player.
A qualifying offer must be for one year and at least equal to the player’s previous salary, unless the salary is less than $1 million. In that case, it must be greater than his previous salary based on other criteria.
Whitecloud, for example, made $925,000 last season, meaning his qualifying offer needed to be for at least one year and for at least $971,250.
Whitecloud’s new deal is for $725,000 per season. Why did he sign for less than what a qualifying offer would have been?
When Whitecloud signed with the Golden Knights as an undrafted college free agent, he was unrestricted and could sign with any team. He picked the Golden Knights on a two-year, entry-level contract worth $925,000 per season. He signed for two years because that’s the requirement of an entry-level contract for a 21-year-old, and for $925,000 because that was the maximum allowed.
He had leverage two seasons ago in that he could negotiate the salary of his contract, if not the term. This time, he faced more of a take-it-or-leave-it situation.
Because hockey contracts are guaranteed, Whitecloud now knows he’ll make $1.45 million over the next two years instead of $971,250 next season and no guarantee beyond that.
He didn’t qualify for an offer sheet or arbitration so his options were to sign the Golden Knights’ offered extension, wait for a qualifying offer, or if the qualifying offer never came, reach UFA, where he might only be offered minor-league deals.
This time around, it boiled down to cost certainty for Whitecloud, as it often does for players in his situation. He’ll have more tools at disposal when he’s an RFA again in the summer of 2022.
Do the Golden Knights have any other RFAs this summer?
Three are on the roster — Chandler Stephenson, Nick Cousins and Nicolas Roy. Like Whitecloud, Roy doesn’t have many options. He’s in the same situation.
Stephenson and Cousins are slightly more interesting cases because they have accumulated enough service time in the league for offer sheets and arbitration rights.
What are offer sheets?
An RFA who has reached certain professional experience qualifier is eligible for an offer sheet. That means he is eligible to sign on a contract with another team, though his original team has an opportunity to match it.
For example, both Stephenson and Cousins are eligible for offer sheets this summer. They can negotiate and sign a contract with another team, but the Golden Knights have the right of first refusal. If Stephenson or Cousins signs an offer sheet with another team, Vegas can choose to retain them under the same terms of the offer sheet.
Offer sheets are an opportunity for teams to sign other teams’ players before they reach UFA status, as well as for the player to negotiate his own salary and term. But offer sheets are incredibly rare in the NHL — there has only been one signed since 2013.
Neither Stephenson nor Cousins is likely to break the trend this summer.
A player qualifies for an offer sheet based on how long he has been a professional after signing an entry-level contract. The minimum requirement is players with at least three years of NHL service, meaning Whitecloud wouldn’t have qualified this summer. He will when he becomes an RFA again in 2022.
What are arbitration rights?
In some cases, an RFA and his team can go to a third-party arbitrator to determine the player’s salary. Both sides present their case and what they think is a fair salary, and the arbiter decides on a number.
Arbitration is worthwhile for RFAs because it gives them a partial say in their salary as opposed to the team determining it essentially on their own. In most cases, players don’t go to arbitration and instead settle at a deal somewhere at the midpoint. In the summer of 2018, William Karlsson filed for $6.5 million while the Golden Knights countered at $3.5 million. He signed a one-year deal worth $5.25 million instead.
Players can go to arbitration if they are an RFA who has not signed an offer sheet and meet a professional experience qualifier based on when they signed their entry-level contract. Whitecloud wouldn’t have qualified this summer for arbitration either. Like his offer sheet status, he will be eligible in 2022.
How long until a player reaches UFA status?
A player becomes a UFA once his contract expires, and he is either 27 years old or has accumulated seven professional seasons. There are other situations where a player can become a UFA but that is the most common.
Both Cousins and Stephenson will be 27 by the time the 2021 offseason rolls around, meaning they will both be eligible for UFA status. Whitecloud will be eligible in the summer of 2023.