Photo credit: Scott Kinville/315 Hockey
By Scott Kinville/315 Hockey
In most of the American Hockey League, the off-season has begun (in a few weeks, the off-season will begin for the rest of the league). For some, the off-season means a time to “unplug” from hockey and forget about the game until September. For others, it means speculation and waiting to see what moves their favorite teams may or may not make during the summer.
Whether you are unplugging or are tuned into the social media accounts of your favorite teams and/or their reporters, one constant is certain. The AHL (and NHL for that matter) can be a very confusing league when it comes to understanding its contracts, the waiver process, and what the league considers its golden rule – the development rule. To that point, I’ve put together this article in the hopes it makes it easier to understand all of the above and shines some light on why teams make the moves they do – whether it’s during the season or the off-season.
- The Contract information used in this article is from https://capfriendly.com.
Contracts in the American Hockey League come in the following forms.
Two-Way Contracts. Two-way contracts are contracts in that a player gets paid different salaries at different levels. These are common for players that are signed by NHL teams but are playing in the AHL. We’ll use New Jersey Devils defenseman Kevin Bahl as an example. When Bahl is playing for the Devils, his base salary is $750,000, but during his time in Utica, his salary was $70,000. These types of contracts generally apply to young players still on their Entry Level Contracts, which we will explain later.
One-Way Contracts. One-way contracts simply mean a player will be paid the same salary regardless of what level they are playing at. In the American Hockey League, this generally does not mean big money for players on one-way contracts, as these players are signed by AHL teams and not the NHL. It can, however, work out pretty well on occasion for these players. Alex Barré-Boulet of the Syracuse Crunch is a great example of this. His contract states that he is paid a salary of $750,000 whether he plays for the Crunch or their NHL parent club the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is because Barré-Boulet is signed to a one-way NHL standard player contract.
Note: If a player who is signed to a one-way AHL contract were to be called up to the NHL, that player would first have to be signed to an NHL contract. These NHL contracts are usually two-way contracts.
PTO/ATO Contracts. PTO (Professional Try Out) and ATO (Amateur Try Out) contracts are basically the same things in that they are temporary contracts. ATOs are for players who do not have any professional experience (generally college players), while PTOs are, you guessed it, for players who have professional experience. ATOs are great for AHL teams who may want to evaluate a player more before signing him to a standard player contract (contracts that are a minimum of one season). PTOs are often seen in the AHL as a means to bring a player up from the ECHL on a temporary basis.
- Players that are signed to contracts of at least one season (non-PTO or ATO) are on what is called a Standard Player Contract (SPC).
Entry Level Contracts (ELC). Entry Level Contracts, or ELCs, are for the NHL only, but it is important to understand how they work from an AHL perspective. For players ages eighteen through twenty-four, the first NHL contracts they sign are entry-level contracts, which are two-way contracts that carry a maximum salary of $925,000 plus bonuses. Per CapFriendly, the length of these contracts is determined by the player’s age when they sign their ELC breaks down as follows.
- 18 – 21 years old: 3 years.
- 22 – 23 years old: 2 years.
- 24 years old (as well as up to 27 years old for players from European leagues): 1 year.
Teams also have the option to “slide” the first year of the ELCs of eighteen and nineteen years old players. This simply means that if these players do not exceed ten games played in the NHL in their first season, their entry-level contract can slide and begins the following season.
The entry-level contract is important to AHL teams because a majority of their players are on entry-level contracts. Almost all players on entry-level contracts playing in the AHL are waiver exempt. Let’s take a look at how waivers work and how it affects AHL teams.
The waiver process for the NHL and, by extension, the AHL is dependent on a player’s age and professional experience. To assign players who are on NHL contracts to the AHL, those players must clear “waivers” for this to happen (including training camp as well). During the twenty-four-hour period, a player is on waivers, and every team in the league (NHL) has the right to claim that player’s contract. If a player clears waivers, then he is eligible to be assigned to the American Hockey League.
There are exceptions to the waiver rule, and they are based on the aforementioned age and professional experience requirements. CapFriendly has a great chart that illustrates the age and experience requirements to be exempt from the waiver process.
|Age||Years Since Signing First NHL Contract||NHL Games Played|
The waiver exemption chart for skaters. For example, if a skater signs his first NHL contract at age 20, he has three years of being waiver exempt or 160 NHL games played – whichever comes first.
|Age||Years Since Signing First NHL Contract||NHL Games Played|
The waiver exemption chart for goaltenders. Due to the nature of playing time associated with their position, goaltender exemption eligibilities differ from that of the skater’s waiver exemptions.
The charts shown above are the standard charts in the current CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). There are modifications for some players because of timelines during covid which are spelled out in a chart at https://capfriendly.com under “Waivers FAQ”.
CapFriendly also states that for any player who is twenty years old or older and who is on an NHL contract, the first year toward their waiver eligibility begins in the year that they played their first professional game. A professional game is considered to be a game played in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, KHL, or any of the European Elite Leagues, including – The National League (Switzerland), Czech Extraliga (Czechia), Slovak Extraliga (Slovakia), SHL (Sweden), Liiga (Finland), and the DEL (Germany).
There is also a contract mechanism called a conditioning loan. An NHL team can send a player to the minors to finish rehabbing an injury without having to first clear waivers. Conditioning loans can be up to either five games or two weeks.
The AHL Development Rule – The Making of a Roster
We now know what types of a contract AHL players can have and how the NHL-to-AHL waiver process works. It should now be easy enough to figure out how an American Hockey League roster comes together, right?
Not so fast.
There is no salary cap in the AHL, nor is there a maximum roster size limit, but in some ways constructing an AHL team is more restrictive than putting together an NHL roster. This is because of the AHL “development rule.” Per https://theahl.com, the development rule is defined as:
The top priority for the American Hockey League is player development, so with that in mind, a rule like this makes sense. It also means that on any given night, thirteen of the eighteen skaters an AHL team puts on the ice are considered prospects. With the remaining five spots, teams are free to sign any veteran that’s available or their NHL club can stash a veteran player in the AHL given that player clears waivers.
Interestingly, the development rule applies to skaters only. There is no written development rule for goaltenders.
I hope you have enjoyed this breakdown of how an AHL roster is constructed. As we can see, there is much more than meets the eye that goes into putting a team on the ice for a game. I referenced Cap Friendly for a lot of the details in this article, but other great reference sites include https://puckpedia.com and https://hockeydb.com.