How a Franchise Tag system could fix the NHL’s RFA problem

Vince Dunn #29 of the St. Louis Blues. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Vince Dunn #29 of the St. Louis Blues. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /
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Vince Dunn (29)
Vince Dunn #29 of the St. Louis Blues. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

The NHL has a problem with its RFA system.

Not a lot of blockbuster moves happen with any player under the age of 27 under the current RFA system in the NHL. It’s unfortunate, but the solution could be found in adopting a franchise tag system.

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Any player drafted into the NHL becomes that team’s property from their Entry-Level Contract, to when their RFA rights expire at either the age of 27, or when the player has played seven years in the NHL, meaning, at the earliest, a player will become a UFA at around 24 or 25 depending on the player’s birthday.

That, in some instances, combined with the slide rule where the first two years of a player’s career won’t count against their Entry-Level Contract means one thing.

No player movement, at least not enough relevant movement. Sure, come every summer one big name might hit Free Agency, maybe two but that player nine times out of ten is over the age of 27. It hurts the NHL. A franchise tag system along with changes to how RFA’s are handled could benefit the NHL wildly.

How does the RFA system hurt the NHL, and would a franchise tag system fix it?

The Owners

Well, lets start out with the owner and work our way down to the fans. Having all these good young players under control and stuck on teams must be incredibly frustrating for General Managers and team owners. I mean, these things drive managers to start barn fights with each other. For more of that feud between Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe over the Oilers’ successful offer sheet of Dustin Penner, watch this video.

For a rebuilding club there’s only two ways to go about doing it; either draft the players you need and hope they turn out two or three years down the line, or trade for them. For a rebuilding team, Free Agency frequently does more harm than good. Signing aging veterans in the 27-32 age range to bloated contracts based on past performance typically does not help a team rebuild, just ask the 2016 FA class.

Jack Eichel (9)
Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Players

Ask Jack Eichel how he’s doing right now. He’s in the third year of an eight year, $80 million deal he signed after his Entry-Level Contract. This means that, unless he gets traded or the Buffalo Sabres figure things out fast, there is a chance he will have played in Buffalo for 11 seasons without any Playoff appearances. With those hefty Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner contracts, the Sabres are going nowhere fast.

Even if Eichel would’ve signed one-year deals that took him right to Free Agency, he still would have this season and next as an RFA with no way to really leave without the Sabres’ blessing.

Josh Ho-Sang is another example. He’s been trapped in New York forever because he’s too talented for the Islanders to let him walk for free, but they have no interest in playing him. I mean in his last 10 game stint in 2018-19, while he only mustered two points, he had a 60.5% Fenwick for percentage and a 11.7% Fenwick for relative percentage.

He drove possession whenever he played and he played well while starting 59.7% of his shifts in the defensive zone, so no wonder he couldn’t score. He had 12 points in 22 games in the NHL the season before that and, somehow, the Islanders decided to bury him in the AHL.

He most likely will never get a real NHL shot on any team because as an RFA he was kept in a system that labelled him “problematic” early in his career and skewered his NHL reputation. Just this upcoming summer in 2020-2021 does he finally become a UFA after being drafted in 2014! 2014!

Vegas Golden Knights fans (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

The Fans

How long have we heard that hockey is the fourth most popular sport in North America? Behind Football, Baseball and Basketball? Statistically speaking based on a survey done in 2017 by Gallup, Hockey actually ranks 5th in general viewership behind the NFL, NBA, MLS, and the MLB. Only four percent of the people polled in this survey across America had Hockey listed as their favourite sport. Don’t believe me? Here’s the poll.

So what makes the NFL and the NBA such a bigger draw? In all honesty, it’s the storylines that are available to follow. What team is the big draw in the NHL this season for the everyday casual fan? There is no Tom Brady going to the Buccaneers as was the case in the NFL. There is not a James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, forming a super team with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. There’s no big talent moving in the NHL. Not consistently enough to stay relevant anyway.

Last summer, Torey Krug going to the St. Louis Blues and Alex Pietrangelo signing for the Vegas Golden Knights were the huge stories in Free Agency. The year before that three players from Columbus in Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, and Matt Duchene all left to different pastures. Before that, John Tavares left the New York Islanders for his boyhood team the Toronto Maple Leafs in Free Agency.

Outside of those names, name some impact players who moved to different teams in Free Agency in recent years. There’s a reason Free Agent Frenzy on TSN gets a lot of its entertainment from the broadcasting crew, the actual Free Agency part is kind of always a let down.

If any big deals happen its usually in the form of a trade because all young players are stuck as RFA’s and the current offer sheet system traps players for the first half of their career. The last one that successfully did go through was the aforementioned Dustin Penner offer sheet in 2008.

Before that, the last one accepted was in 1997 when the Tampa Bay Lightning decided not to match the offer by the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Chris Gratton, instead taking four First Round picks, two of which were traded back to the Flyers for other players.