NWHL RFA period and draft tax complicates offseason

The NWHL announced  Friday a restricted free agency period during the month of April, during which time players can choose to re-sign with their former organization and 2015 draft selections can commit to the club which drafted them.

While in the NHL restricted free agency is dependent on number of years of experience in the league, designed to keep the prices of younger players down, the NWHL’s restricted free agency period will apply to all players in the league regardless of age or experience. It was crafted to give teams first crack at their top players, or the players who will best suit their system going forward.

This situation heavily favors teams with general managers who are also head coaches, such as the Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. These coaches will know precisely which players they want to retain from their team from last year in order to build for the future, having seen what they were capable of producing in 2015-2016.

On May 1, restricted free agents who have not signed contracts and draft picks who did not sign with the team which drafted them become free agents and can sign with any organization in the league.

“Restricted free agency gives players and draft selections an opportunity to secure a spot with their club without having to enter into free agency,” said Commissioner Dani Rylan in the press release. “Once May 1 hits, free agency opens the door not just to players wishing to move, but to the depth of talent graduating from college and the players we’ve been scouting around the world.”

Similarly to the league’s inaugural year, all contracts signed during restricted free agency and free agency will be one-year contracts.

In addition to restricted free agency, the league has also announced a new Draft Tax. The Draft Tax will affect clubs who sign other team’s draft selections. Below are updates to the NWHL bylaws.

The member club which drafts a player retains exclusive rights to the player, but must abide by NCAA and CIS rules (if applicable) to ensure the player can continue their collegiate career. Once drafted, a player must complete their degree and continue playing to the same level of commitment as when drafted. If the player returns to college for a fifth year, the club that drafted them retains the exclusive rights to that player through the free agency period following her final year of college. If player decides to sign with another club, that club will forfeit between $1,000 – $5,000 of their salary cap to the club that drafted the player. $1,000 for 5th round picks, $2,000 for 4th round picks, $3,000 for 3rd round picks, $4,000 for 2nd round picks, $5,000 for 1st round picks.

The Draft Tax is both set up to make stealing another team’s draft pick less appealing, but also to even out competition between the clubs. If, for example, Connecticut goes all-in and decides to snag all the top 2015 Draft picks, the Draft Tax will leave Whale GM Lisa Giovanelli Zuba with $20,000 less to sign the rest of her players–the equivalent of two base salaries or one relatively high-end player–thus weakening her team despite the signing of highly skilled 22-year-olds.

The obvious get-around for this is to commit first-year players to $5,000 less than said team would have otherwise offered them for the chance to win an Isobel Cup and get the publicity that comes with such a win, but in a league as small and new as this, it’s unlikely such a strategy would work.

It is currently unclear if the Draft Tax would work the other way, giving teams compensation for draft picks who chose not ti sign with the league, or if it also applies to teams that trade with another for previous draft picks who signed with their team during the offseason or regular season. Today’s Slapshot has reached out to the league for clarification and will update when warranted.

Despite the complications these new rules have added, it should serve to increase parity across the league and inches the job of a NWHL GM closer to that of an NHL GM, lending the league further legitimacy.

Restricted free agency begins April 1 and lasts until April 30. Free agency begins May 1 and lasts until July 31. The 2016 Junior Draft is June 18.

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