News that the Intenational Ice Hockey Federation plans to reopen its transfer agreement with the NHL came as no startling bit of news to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who said he informed the league's board of governors two weeks ago that the league intended to do that very thing.
"This is not coming as a surprise to anybody," Bettman told thehockeynews.com Thursday.
Under the terms of the four-year deal reached last spring, the NHL or any one of the member federations of the IIHF could elect to opt out of the deal by January 1, 2008. The IIHF announced Thursday that the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland, Slovakia, Sweden and Switzerland voted unanimously to reopen the agreement.
Both sides have issues with the current agreement, but for different reasons. The European federations are alarmed so many players have been signed to NHL contracts recently and have been assigned to the American League because they are not NHL-ready. The European federations argue that those players would be far better served going back to their home countries to continue to develop and it would enhance the quality of play in their leagues.
From the NHL perspective, the league isn't thrilled about paying roughly $200,000 per player its teams sign, then not having them play in the NHL.
According to the IIHF, 64 European players signed new NHL contracts prior to this season, but just seven of them are currently on NHL rosters.
"The issues from our standpoint relate to the number of players transferred, the penalty clauses and the like," Bettman said. "We just want to make sure this agreement is working the way we had all intended. We want to have a transfer agreement, but we need to fine-tune it."
One of the largest stumbling blocks may not be able to be overcome because it has to do with a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement. Prior to the current CBA, teams could draft a European player and essentially hold his rights in perpetuity without having to sign him. Under the new CBA, European players have been brought in line with North American juniors, meaning they must be signed to a contract within two years of being drafted or, depending on their age, they either go back into the draft or become unrestricted free agents.
The clause has caused a flood of NHL signings that would otherwise not have taken place. The majority of these players, as it turns out, are not NHL ready and many are being sent to the AHL. The IIHF did a study last season that suggests that a players' development would be greatly enhanced by staying home to play rather than going to the AHL.
The likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Forsberg, Teemu Selanne, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin all spent at least one year in European leagues after being drafted. In fact, Alfredsson and Selanne did not come to the NHL until they were 22 and both were Calder Trophy winners, with Selanne scoring 76 goals in his first NHL season.
From the league's perspective, things would be much better if the CBA could simply go back to the old provision, but there's likely little chance the NHL Players' Association would be willing to alter the CBA without some kind of take-back in another area. But it is not unprecedented. When the CBA was first reached in 2004, there was a provision that prohibited teams from extending entry-level contracts – such as the 12-year extension Mike Richards signed Thursday with the Philadelphia Flyers worth $69 million (analysis)– but the two sides agreed to overturn that provision last summer.
If it's not possible to go back to the old rules, there is a chance the CBA could be changed to force teams to send their top young European players back to Europe, and not the AHL, if they cannot play in the NHL. Currently, North American juniors with junior eligibility must be sent back to their junior teams and cannot play in the AHL.
Bettman also said the NHL is cognizant of the troubles the European leagues face in losing their best young players, particularly if they're not coming to North America to play in the NHL. He's aware that creates a scenario where the league could be killing the golden goose.
"We want hockey to be healthy at all levels and in all places around the world," Bettman said. "Whether or not we share or don't share that exact concern, we understand the issue and respect it. What we need to do is have an agreement that works the way we all anticipated and that's why this one needs to be adjusted."
Bettman said he's confident an agreement can be reached in time for teams to sign European players next summer, but isn't optimistic this will create an opportunity to bring the Russians, who are not part of the current agreement, back on board.
"The Russian issue is a little bit different," Bettman said. "Unlike the other federations, the Russians, on some level, it appears don't want to be part of the transfer agreement."