Thursday, 28 June 2012

Does Justin Schultz 'deserve' to choose his NHL team

Lots of angst on social media on Justin Schultz and how unfair it is that he can choose the team he plays for rather than go to the team that drafted him, and I suspect all the guys who were drafted by the New York Islanders last week agree with this sentiment.  Why does he get to use this loophole and others don't?

There are many facets to this issue.  One of the main ones is that as fans, we have now come to accept and maybe even revere the universal draft as a just and immutable way to distribute talent throughout sports leagues, to help competitive balance, and as an annual tradition that promises better days ahead.

Yet the NHL draft has a more complex history.  Before it existed, the Original 6 teams had farm systems that included junior teams and pro teams.  Players were scouted as young teenagers and signed to contracts before they reached adulthood.  Once they signed, the player belonged to that team until traded or released, for their entire career.  Society being what it was, the modest sums offered as signing bonuses seemed astronomical to well-meaning parents unprepared to negotiate, and the chance to play in the NHL was too much to resist.  

Now some players were the subjects of bidding wars as early as twelve or thirteen years old.  Player agents began to enter the fray, notably Alan Eagleson with Bobby Orr, and all of a sudden, monopolistic owners began to frown at having to pay more than a pittance for a player's rights.  This is how the NHL draft morphed from one to claim all players who hadn't yet been signed by NHL teams by the time they turned 20 to a universal draft.  Now teams didn't have to bid against each other for phenoms.

Meanwhile, courts began to strike down the 'reserve clause' that bound players in all major sports to their teams for their entire careers, which was seen as unfairly restrictive and monopolistic.  Player unions and owners began to negotiate collective agreements that tried to allow for competitive balance but also some freedom of movement for players.

In this way, it has evolved that a player who is drafted yet cannot come to terms with the team which drafted him is not forced to sign.  This comes at a significant cost to the player.  For example, a junior player who doesn't sign a contract with the team that drafts him must wait out two years, but even then doesn't become a free agent but rather re-enters the draft, for his rights to potentially be held by another team for two years.  NCAA college players such as Justin Schultz and Blake Wheeler before him have to wait out their entire four year college career and not sign a contract and forego lots of money in salary and bonuses they could have earned had they turned pro.  In the case of college players though, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

To some it may seem that it is too easy for a player to play for four years in college, possibly earn his degree, and then call his shot in the pros, yet it's inaccurate to call it a loophole.  This facet of the Collective Bargaining Agreement was freely negotiated by the owners and players.  With the attention focused on this area by the Justin Schultz situation and the frustration voiced by the Anaheim Ducks, we can expect that the next round of negotiation will spend some time on this issue.  

Having said that, it is unreasonable in modern society to expect that a player will be bound to the team that drafts him for an indefinite period of time, courts wouldn't allow it.  Leagues are already pushing the envelope by limiting rookie wages with entry-level contracts.  Sports leagues walk a tightrope to avoid anti-trust scrutiny; the probable remedy will be to allow for greater compensation for teams who lose players this way by awarding valuable draft picks.

In the case of Justin Schultz, I personally have to say that I don't have a major problem with the kid's decision.  He didn't do anything illegal or immoral or rig the system, he played the cards he was dealt and is making use of his options, the same as players who choose to go to the KHL rather than earn less than what the market would dictate normally in the NHL or AHL.  

Further, as hockey fans we have to like that he's turning his back on a glitzy Southern Californian franchise and looking to play in hockey markets such as Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.  The inclusion of Edmonton on this kid's list is his get-out-of-jail card.  He wants to play hockey and he's trying to do so in the right environment so he can have a regular shift on an NHL team, we should cut the kid a break. 

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