NHL Restricted Free Agents

What are the rules governing an NHL Free Agents listed as "restricted"?

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes the save on Viktor Arvidsson #38 of the Nashville Predators in Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the PPG PAINTS Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A restricted free agent in the NHL is a player who has completed his entry-level contract, but does not have enough NHL service to become an unrestricted free agent. This player qualifies as a restricted free agent when his contract expires.

Offer Sheet

An offer sheet is a contract negotiated between an NHL team and a restricted free agent on another team. It includes all the terms of a standard player contract, including length, salary, bonuses, etc.

When a player signs an offer sheet with a new team, his current team is notified. That team has the right to "match" the offer sheet with an identical contract and keep the player. Or it can decline and let the player join the new team under the terms of the offer sheet.

The original team has seven days to make its decision.

No Trades

Once an offer sheet has been signed, the original team has only two options: match the offer or let the player go.

A team also cannot match an offer sheet and then trade the playe​r. If the original team chooses to “match” the offer sheet, the player cannot be traded for one year.

Loss of a Restricted Free Agent

There is compensation for an NHL team that loses a restricted free agent on an offer sheet. The team that declines the offer sheet and loses the player receives draft picks from the player’s new team.

Compensation for losing a restricted free agent is on a sliding scale, depending on how much the new contract is worth. The exact numbers change every year.

The numbers as of 2011:

  • A team signing a restricted free agent to a contract worth more than $7,835,219 per season loses four first-round draft picks to the player's old team.
  • For a contract with an annual value of at least $6,268,176, the acquiring team gives up two first-round picks, one second-round pick, and one third-round pick.
  • There are another four levels of compensation, going down to a contract worth up to $1,034,249 per year, for which there is no compensation.

Salary Arbitration

An restricted free agent cannot sign an offer sheet if he is awaiting salary arbitration. A player going to salary arbitration is effectively off the market. He can only continue negotiations with his current team, or go to arbitration.

A Qualifying Offer

A qualifying offer is a contract offer extended to a restricted free agent by his current team. By making a qualifying offer, an NHL team maintains the player's status as a restricted free agent, even if the offer is rejected.

If the qualifying offer is not made by the current team, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any NHL team.

  • Players who earned less than $660,000 in the previous NHL season must be offered at least 110 percent of last season's salary in a qualifying offer.
  • Players who earned up to $1 million must be offered 105 percent.
  • Players who earned over $1 million must be offered 100 percent.

December 1st

This is a pivotal date for restricted free agents. A restricted free agent who does not sign a new contract by December 1st becomes ineligible to play for the rest of the season. It's essentially a deadline for contract negotiations that drag into the new season.