Circumventing The CBA - Legally and Lamorielloey

It's no secret that the Canadian Hockey League enjoys protected status granted to it by the NHL.  Once signed by an NHL team, players drafted into the the CHL systems (the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League) are required to remain with their CHL teams or move to the NHL.  The American Hockey League is not an option for them.  The agreement in place between the NHL and the CHL restricts player movement, purposefully, to only other CHL teams or their NHL team.  In order for a player from a CHL team to play in the AHL, he must turn 20 years old by December 31st of the upcoming season - OR - have completed four seasons of CHL eligibility.  There exists a clause that allows CHL players to play in the AHL once their CHL season is over, provided the AHL season is still ongoing, regardless of age or eligibility qualifications.  However, that player must return to the CHL the following season.

The CHL gets a labor pool tethered to the league, drawing fans and selling tickets.  The NHL gets a developmental league devoted solely to hockey.  Typically, the deal works for both sides - this agreement doesn't impact prospect development to a great degree, and everyone but the AHL goes home happy.  The AHL, on the other hand, accepts and welcomes all players over the age of eighteen, regardless of junior status.  I say typically this deal works for both sides because circumstances arise from time-to-time making this agreement a blockade in player development.

A line that's come up in the discussions of whether the Oilers should keep Taylor Hall on the roster or send him back to the CHL is, "He's got nothing left to prove in the OHL."  If that statement is true and Hall would no longer benefit from hitting Single A pitching, then he shouldn't play in that league any longer.  However, Hall is not Sidney Crosby, and he's not ready to step in and play a complete game in the NHL, so it makes little sense for the Oilers to keep him in the NHL and burn a year of his contract while he learns how to play on one half of the ice.  The terms of the NHL / CHL agreement handcuff the Oilers in this case.  Hall isn't ready for the NHL, but they can't send him to the AHL, and keeping him in the CHL is a waste.  Hall isn't the only one to face this circumstance.  Last season Jordan Eberle, Nazem Kadri, James Wright, Evander Kane, Kyle Beach and Luca Sbisa all faced similar circumstances.  They were ready for the next stage of their development, but not ready for the NHL.

An idea I've discussed in the past is sending these tweeners (too good for the CHL, but not good enough for the NHL and not eligible for the AHL) to Sweden to play in a professional league.  To clarify, this must be done prior to signing the player to an entry-level contract and it must be done unofficially, off of the books.  For example, last season, the Oilers should have, through back channels, unofficially asked Jordan Eberle to play for Skelleftea HC in the Swedish Elite League, rather than sign his ELC.  Nothing in the NHL-CHL agreement or the CBA governs CHL players leaving their CHL teams to go overseas, so Eberle would not break any agreements in doing so.

Edmonton would, again, off of the books, send money to Skelleftea HC to pay Eberle, and in this case, Edmonton would make that transfer equivalent to his NHL ELC.  Skelleftea HC would contract Eberle like any other SEL player and pay him the money given to them by Edmonton.  In Eberle's case, Edmonton would have sent $1,158,333 to Skelleftea HC as Eberle's salary.

Everyone in this scenario benefits except the CHL and cash-poor NHL teams that don't have the ability to pay large amounts of money for non-NHL developmental years.  For the player, especially in the case of Eberle, it's like discovering gold.  Rather than another season in the WHL, he's now earning seven figures in Sweden.  In Eberle's case, it might be harder to convince the player to go to the SEL for a season unless you can convince him that he is going back to the OHL and won't get an ELC.  Teams might find it difficult to play hardball with superstars, but the offer of the full ELC with bonuses, rather than just the base with a chance to earn bonuses might be an incentive.  The player also benefits from an extra year of development in a more difficult league and the benefit should be a better NHL player in his first year.  Player agents would certainly endorse deals like this - they begin receiving a much larger piece of the pie much earlier in the player development cycle and it should benefit them long term because the player's second contract should be larger if the player is able to make a larger impact in the NHL during his ELC.

One concern raised by Tyler is that tweeners are more likely to get hurt playing against men in a professional league and the risk is much greater for the player to agree to something like this.  In that case, the NHL team, again off of the books, could pay the insurance premiums to allow the player to purchase a career/business insurance policy to protect the player should the he suffer an injury.

NHL teams are able remove professional development years from the salary cap, yet increase the development cycle for their tweener.  In the long run this should create better NHL players for a much smaller cap hit.  Of course, cash-poor NHL teams wouldn't be able to execute a plan like this, and it's not likely that they'd be happy with their fellow owners for trying an obvious circumvention of the CBA.  And it is an obvious circumvention of the CBA.  Outside of an NCAA-like booster program, it's an obvious violation of the CBA.  Only the slickest and/or quietest of management teams would be able to pull something like this off, but doing this with a lesser-light like James Wright or Jordan Eberle is much easier than trying it with a first overall pick.

One way to get all of the benefit of everything mentioned above and be completely above-board, completely kosher, is to ask the tweener to outright move to the SEL.  According to The Hockey News in 2008 the average player salary in European leagues were as follows:

 

Kontinental Hockey League: $400,000
Swedish Elite League: $200,000
Swiss Nationalliga A: $170,000
German Eishockey Liga: $150,000
Czech Extraliga: $100,000
Slovak Extraliga: $75,000
Finnish SM-Liiga: $67,000


If an NHL team were to pay premiums on a hefty insurance policy and legally count it against their salary cap number (a nominal sum in NHL dollars) and ask an unsigned player to leave for Skelleftea HC, wouldn't a young player jump at the opportunity to make a couple of hundred thousand dollars playing professionally with a big insurance policy?

Two ways to skirt the system, one far outside the bounds of the CBA, one well within the bounds of the CBA, both producing the same result.  Neither would've helped the Oilers out of the Taylor Hall decision, but the latter may have helped them develop Jordan Eberle.

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