There's a lot of excitement surrounding the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes right now, but also a lot of frustration from some fans who don't see why an unproven rookie is such a big deal. The coverage has indeed been ceaseless for a former third-round pick hitting the market.
But there's one thing that must be made clear here -- coverage of the situation aside -- and it's that there's nothing wrong with Vesey becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Vesey hit free agency on Tuesday because the rules set by the collective bargaining agreement, which is agreed upon by the NHL and NHL Players Association, say that teams are only allowed to retain draft rights to players for a certain amount of time. In the case of a North American player who's going to play NCAA hockey, the window to negotiate a deal is a bit over four years. That usually covers the player's whole college career.
There's a very good reason for this system, and it's part of the very foundation of how player movement works in the NHL. Back in 1972, the league abolished the reserve clause following an extended legal battle with the World Hockey Association, which was attempting to poach star players with lucrative, reserve clause-free contracts. The league was trying to prevent players from signing in the WHA using that clause, but a district court disagreed and allowed players to leave for the WHA (which led to their eventual merger in 1979).
Before that, the reserve clause was a standard part of NHL contracts that allowed teams to retain players' rights indefinitely. This is why players often stuck with one team for their entire careers back in the day -- they didn't have the choice of leaving. With the beginning of free agency's rise in the early 1970s following those WHA court cases, players finally had the right to change employers under certain circumstances. It's been part of CBA negotiations ever since.
Prospects like Vesey are given the right to free agency after a certain amount of time because the other choice is something akin to the reserve clause. The alternative is letting teams retain the rights to drafted players indefinitely, which would prevent them from having any sort of leverage over the teams whatsoever. If you take away a player's ability to threaten to hit free agency at some point, then his career is entirely controlled by the team until he signs. It would completely swing the balance in an already unbalanced system.
And that's why Vesey, just like Kevin Hayes before him, is in the right. The Predators, who drafted him in 2012, had nearly four years -- until his rights were sent to Buffalo -- to be able to sign the forward. Many players sign before that because they want to start their professional careers, where they can earn huge amounts of money once they've built up service time. But Vesey happened to develop on a slightly different timetable, and by the time he decided he was ready for the NHL, it just happened to be a few months before he'd have the right to pick his own team. The Predators wanted to sign him in the spring (and the Sabres this summer). He wanted to see what else was out there and had to wait until age 23 to get that chance.
For teams, the lesson here is that you don't risk letting a really good -- or potentially really good -- prospect hit his senior season. Teams have to understand the risk at this point after Blake Wheeler, Justin Schultz, Hayes, Vesey and others. And there's risk involved here for the players, too. Going through all four years of college hockey, with the injury risk involved, and bypassing going pro is a significant choice for an NHL prospect. He may never get a contract if he suffers a major injury before he inks a deal. But if a team opts not to sign a player hoping it will happen at last minute, that's their fault. This is something the Hawks might run into next year with John Hayden, who enters his senior year unsigned after passing on a deal from Chicago.
It's not like the system allows Vesey to actually hit a truly open market because he's still limited by entry-level contract rules. He's available to all 30 teams, but it's in a constrained market where nobody can offer more than a two-year deal with a $832,500 base salary, $92,500 signing bonus and $2.85 million in performance bonuses. This isn't about Vesey getting access to the kind of payday not afforded to other inexperienced players because he waited. It's about not turning draft rights into a softer form of the reserve clause.
Now, there are real complaints you could potentially have here. Some players take a while to develop and teams can get burned by guys who breakout as seniors like Vesey did. Maybe the time frame for draft rights could be extended beyond four-plus years. But you'd still run into the same risk, and likely have more holdouts with players refusing to sign with their respective teams. Eventually the player needs some kind leverage, and free agency is what creates that.
The real problem, for many people, seems to be the schedule, and the fact that the draft rights deadline lands on Aug. 15. That's right in the middle of the slowest time of the year for the hockey world, and there are a lot of reporters looking for things to report on. Naturally, that makes a good prospect hitting the market a big story -- bigger than it would be if it happened at many other times of the year. The coverage is overwhelming, but that's because people need something to talk about as much as anything. When people object to the whole Vesey situation, I think a lot of that comes from being tired of hearing about him.
Vesey's free agency isn't a loophole, or some flaw with the NHL's draft system. This is what SHOULD happen with prospects after a certain amount of time because we've left the reserve clause era behind. While the league isn't a true open market, due to the draft, salary cap, etc., the NHLPA has negotiated to ensure players are guaranteed certain things. One of those things is the right to become a free agent under specific circumstances, such as four years after being drafted if you go to college. This is better than removing the expiration date from draft rights.
For the vast majority of players, it's not an issue. And in the unique cases like Vesey, it's just the system working as designed.