NHL Free Agency 101


It’s arguably the busiest and most exciting time on the NHL’s calendar and for fans, fun and at times sad. The “Free Agent Frenzy” is when NHL teams facilitate contract negotiations with their free agents and players available on the open market to help improve their team. In this guide, NoVa Caps explains everything fans need to know about NHL Free Agency. 

It’s important for fans to know that there are two main types of free agents: Unrestricted free agents (commonly known as UFAs) and Restricted free agents (commonly known as RFAs). The following sections explains the differences between the two.


Unrestricted free agents are defined as any players that are at least 27-years old or has at least SEVEN years of NHL service, and whose contract has expired. Furthermore, players that are at least 22-years  old that have not been drafted by any team are considered unrestricted and are free to sign with any team.


Restricted free agents are defined as a player who is not considered entry-level, but does not meet the requirements to become an unrestricted free agent. Restricted free agents’ negotiating rights are owned by their current team and cannot negotiate with other teams.


Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), teams can offer any of their pending unrestricted free agents a maximum contract length of EIGHT years. Prior to the current CBA, teams were free to sign players to massive, big-money contracts (such as Alex Ovechkin’s 13-year, $124 million contract signed in 2008). Outside teams are limited to a maximum length of seven years.


A qualifying offer is a one-year contract that teams can offer to their RFAs. Teams can begin negotiating with RFAs the day after the NHL Entry Draft, which is also the deadline for making a qualifying offer. A player has the option of accepting or declining the offer. The qualifying offer’s salary amount depends on the player’s salary for the previous year.Here are the criteria for teams a qualifying offer:

  • Players who earned less than $660,000 must be offered 110% of their previous salary. A player making up to $1 million must be offered 105%. Any player making over $1 million must be offered $100% .
  • If a team does not extend a qualifying offer to a player, that player becomes an unrestricted free agent.
  • If a player rejects the offer, the player remains a restricted free agent.
  • If the two sides are unable to reach an agreement before December 1, the player is not eligible to play for his team for the rest of the season.


If a player has rejected a qualifying offer or not yet signed, he is eligible to sign an offer sheet. An offer sheet is a contract offered by another team to the restricted free agent. If a player signs the offer sheet, that player has seven days to match the offer or the player will go to the team that made the offer, with compensation going to his former team.


If a player and his team are unable to come to agreement on a new contract, one or both can file for salary arbitration, in which an arbiter hears both sides. The team can only take a player to arbitration once in his career. Players can request arbitration as many times as they please. In arbitration, both the player and team submit their own expected salaries for the player. The arbiter hears both sides and makes a decision on the player’s salary for the upcoming season. The team must make a decision within 48 hours on whether to accept or decline the decision:

  • if a team accepts, the player returns on a one-year contract
  • If a team declines, the player automatically becomes an unrestricted free agent

Eligibility for salary arbitration is dependent on entry-level signing age, and professional experience (CBA Reference 12.1 (a)):

  • 18-20: 4 years professional experience.
  • 21: 3 years professional experience.
  • 22-23: 2 years professional experience.
  • 24 and older: 1 year professional experience.

-Signing age is the age the player is on September 15 of the year they signed their contract, unless they turn 20 from September 16-December 31, in which case they are considered 20.
-Players aged 18 or 19 are considered to have completed a year of professional experience when they have played 10 or more NHL games in that season. Players aged 20 or older have completed a year of professional experience when they have played 10 games in a professional league, while under an SPC.


The NHL implemented a salary cap starting in the 2005-06 season. It limits the spending of NHL teams and ensures that no one team has an advantage when it comes to free agency. The 2015-16 salary cap was $71,400,000. The projected cap for next season is $74,400,000.

For further salary cap info and a list of free agents, visit:

By Michael Fleetwood

About Michael Fleetwood

Michael Fleetwood was born into a family of diehard Capitals fans and has been watching games as long as he can remember. He was born the year the Capitals went to their first Stanley Cup Final, and is a diehard Caps fan, the owner of the very FIRST Joe Beninati jersey and since then, has met Joe himself. Michael joined the NoVa Caps team in 2015, and is most proud of the growth of the NoVa Caps community in that time. An avid photographer, Michael resides in VA.
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19 Responses to NHL Free Agency 101

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  2. jonmsorensen says:

    Good info, Michael.

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