Calgary Flames

Adam Fox and the curious case of the college free agents

Last week at The Win Column, we decided to take a look back at the Dougie Hamilton trade and evaluate where the winners and losers sit after nearly four years. The Calgary Flames—and mainly Elias Lindholm—were and still are on an absolute tear recently so surely most people would assume they are the winners correct?

Interestingly enough, there still remained a great deal of debate among Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Rangers fans as to who won or lost the deal. There are simply too many variables and criteria to evaluate just where teams sit even after this long of a time period.

What was consistent across the board was the Adam Fox factor. Included in the deal primarily due to Fox not wanting to sign an NHL contract in Calgary, Fox has turned into arguably the best player in the deal. Winning the Norris Trophy last season, Fox has and will continue to be for many years a consistent threat to win the award. 

The Calgary Flames have Noah Hanifin and Lindholm to show for it and the Carolina Hurricanes have two prospects from the deal that sent Fox to New York as well. Both teams don’t have Fox, but they are far from empty handed.

What came up consistently in Flames discussions was the situation surrounding Fox, his draft selection, and subsequent unwillingness to sign a contract in Calgary. This made us wonder just how this is possible, is it fair, and how can the Flames and other NHL teams in the future avoid this in the future.

College draft picks

What should be prefaced first, is that this situation doesn’t necessarily happen all that often. For Flames fans, there may always be personal vendettas towards Fox and he’ll be jeered in the Saddledome for years to come, but this is by far the first time a player of this calibre has resulted from a college draft pick leaving his original team. 

Our own Boyan Demchuk took a look at the history of NCAA players leaving the teams that drafted them back in November, and out of that crop of players there is only one “Adam Fox”. Alex Kerfoot, Jimmy Vesey, and Kevin Hayes are the most notable names, but they aren’t Norris Trophy winners or close to that. 

So overall, Fox is the outlier here and although it hurts for Flames fans to hear, but they just got dealt a bad hand.

However, the hand that they were dealt is perfectly allowable under the CBA. As it stands, college players classify under the following: 

If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19 is a bona fide college student at the time of his selection in the Entry Draft, or becomes a bona fide college student prior to the first June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, and remains a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain the exclusive right of negotiation for his services through and including the August 15 following the graduation of his college class. The Club need not make a Bona Fide Offer to such Player to retain such rights. 

CBA Section 8.6 c (i)

This is what the Flames had with Fox, essentially having him under their rights until August 15 of his graduation year. If not signed to a contract before that date, the player becomes a free agent and can sign with any club.

The Flames were made aware by Fox’s representatives that he wouldn’t sign a contract with the Flames and so instead of losing him for nothing, they included him in the trade. 

The same thing happened to the Hurricanes, who knew Fox would also not sign with them and therefore traded him to New York for two draft picks. 

The CBA allows for this to happen for college players, and players are using it to define their career.

What is right?

Now there are two opinions to gather from this type of situation. Either you are in full agreement that a player should have the option to choose where they want to play their career, or you disagree completely that a player can force their hand that early. 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but there should be some consistency. 

As it stands right now, if a college player is drafted by an NHL team they appear to have slightly more ability to force their hand into a different team than a player in major junior. An NHL team simply needs to make a “bona fide offer” to a player drafted in juniors or from an overseas team to retain their rights, when a college player need to sign a contract in order to remain part of that organizations reserve rights list. 

The differentiation between the two is key as it presents a level of risk for teams now drafting college players. For example, when Owen Power was drafted first overall last year, there were whispers that he wouldn’t want to play for Buffalo and therefore could essentially remain in college and let his rights lapse. The chances of that happening are low, as we have seen above, but the opportunity still exists. 

Teams should absolutely not try to avoid drafting players just because they are in college as a result, but they should make sure as part of the pre-draft scouting process that the player would be fully willing to be a part of the organization long term. 

On the other hand, would the NHL ever be the type of league that allows for more influence from players as to where they want to play? We see it in the NBA all the time, with teams quickly forcing their hand onto another team, but with their salary cap system and contract structures it makes things much harder to translate to the NHL.

The one aspect I do wonder about is potentially implementing a signing bonus aspect, similar to the NBA’s super max contracts, that gives players a bit more money if they sign their first big contract with the team that drafted them. It’s extremely unlikely, but would be an incentive for players and clubs to form that long lasting relationship. 

What does the Fox say?

Going back to Fox, his situation is highly unique. As a Flames fan, you do wonder how transparent he was during the pre-draft scouting. If a player only has intentions for playing for one NHL team, you would hope he would disclose that to teams. On the other hand, that gives a bad impression especially in the NHL where personalities and player preferences are non-existent. 

You can easily argue that one’s opinions or thoughts on playing for a specific team would change over time, which we see in free agency all of the time, but for a team to use a draft selection on a player that doesn’t want to be there seems off. 

It doesn’t make sense to overhaul the system for just a few players, that is very clear. But as we are seeing an increase in NCAA players entering the league, in addition to NHL teams that are dealing with off-ice issues that could influence player decisions, it makes it a situation to watch. Look at the Arizona Coyotes and Ottawa Senators for example, if they draft a majority of NCAA players that won’t sign with them, it makes it harder to build out an NHL franchise down the road. 

It’s a curious case right now, but one that could become far more dangerous down the road. 

Photo by: Jeff Vinnick / NHL via Getty

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