The Montreal Canadiens are headed toward a pivotal franchise-setting entry draft on June 22, with 10 picks, including five in the first two rounds, accumulated through various trades.
One second-round pick unfortunately slipped far down the line with the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup; ironically the pick the Canadiens secured by trading Lars Eller, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal.
Such a bounty of picks will help replenish the cupboard and provide the Canadiens with a rich development system. The problem arises that with such an abundance of picks coming during the same draft year, it means that all of their entry-level contracts (ELCs) risk coinciding, and therefore the Canadiens could run into major salary cap issues down the road.
For instance, if the Canadiens were to draft exclusively from Canadian junior this year, that could mean up to 10 ELC contracts could all be up at the same time under the worst scenario. Obviously this is not ideal and impossible to manage from a cap perspective down the road.
Surely the team is aware of this issue and has made certain provisions, but let us go through some scenarios the Canadiens could explore to help level out this issue:
Draft from various leagues
The rights for undrafted players vary based on the location of a player, and go something like this:
- Canadian junior system: Habs have two years to sign draft picks (2020)
- American college system: Habs have four years to sign players headed to the NCAA, and who stay there until graduation (2022)
- European leagues (except KHL and NLA): As an 18- or 19-year-old, four years (2022). As a 20-year-old, two years (2020)
As with everything in the NHL‘s Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are precisions and exceptions. (CapFriendly provides a full list), but in general the cases listed above are the most common. By selecting players from various leagues of origin, you at least begin to stagger out when the Canadiens need to sign players, and thereby the expiration of entry-level deals.
Nobody is saying that the Canadiens have to use all 10 draft picks this year. They could consider trading picks away, either for players, or if they are serious about a slow, steady rebuild, swap for picks in the 2019 entry draft, which would delay the expiration of an ELC by a year.
Draft late-birthday players
We explored the late-birthday loophole recently when discussing the case of Cale Fleury, but what it essentially means is if a player is born after September 15, you can sign them to a standard three-year ELC, but they will play four years on it if the first year is spent entirely in the AHL. Recent examples of prospects fitting this bill are Brett Lernout and Nikita Scherbak.
Draft from Switzerland or Russia
The NHL does not have transfer agreements with the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) or the Swiss National League A (NLA), so drafting a player from one of these countries gives the Canadiens indefinite rights to this player.
It may be risky to draft out of Russia given that highly touted players are more likely to be paid better to stay in their native country, but 21 players were selected from the KHL since 2012, of which six played in the NHL, Valeri Nichushkin being a prime example. He was signed immediately after being drafted and played three full seasons in the NHL before returning to Russia. He has just signed a two-year contract with Dallas to return in the NHL.
Selecting out of Switzerland also offers an interesting option, mind you this is a rare option as only nine players have been drafted out of Switzerland since 2012, not including Auston Matthews.
There is no rule that says that you must sign a player to an ELC to begin with. If the player does not develop how the Canadiens would like, they could just let his rights expire. There are plenty of options available from there including offering an AHL contract instead, or signing an undrafted free agent whose ELC contract is shorter if they come from the NCAA as an older prospect.
In the end, once the entry-level deals are done, the field would have sorted itself out anyway, and it becomes more obvious which prospects will require shorter bridge deals, which ones will get long-term investments, and which will no longer remain with the organization.
But at the very least, with some of the options indicated above, the Canadiens will be able to better manage the contract situation of the team, and avoid large bulk contract expiration.
Only 14 times since 2012 has a team been able to draft 10 players or more. The Vegas Golden Knights hold the record for most picks in a single draft year with 12 in 2017. The Buffalo Sabres have added at least 10 prospects two times, in 2013 and 2016.