restricted free agent in NHL

How Does A Restricted Free Agent Work In The NHL?

Other professional sports like the NBA, Football, and soccer are familiar with players being free agents. Players run out of contract and can still have their rights held by their team. The restricted free agency best defines players in this situation. So, how does a restricted free agent work in the NHL?

Restricted players who have just finished their entry-level contracts. However, their team would still hold rights over them until they reach the unrestricted free agent stage. 

This stage of a hockey player’s career is very important. In this article, we will discuss all you need to know about Restricted free agents (RFA) and Unrestricted free agents (UFA).

What Is A Restricted Free Agent In The NHL?

When a hockey player is drafted into a team, their rights are held by the club for at least seven years or until they turn 25. Restricted free agents are players whose entry contracts have expired but are yet to reach the unrestricted free agent status. 

Players with Restricted free-agent status have limitations in movements to other clubs. That is because their clubs still hold some rights over them for a certain period. 

What Are The Rules Surrounding Restricted Free Agents?

Restricted free agency is pretty confusing because it’s not as simple as unrestricted free agency. RFAs have some rights that UFAs do not, but they have some restrictions that UFAs don’t have either.

Let’s go through the restrictions here first:

  • A player can become a restricted free agent when they’ve played three or more years in the NHL, depending on their age when they signed their first contract.
  • All players with fewer than seven accrued seasons who are qualified as RFAs per Article 10.2 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement must automatically receive qualifying offers from their teams to retain negotiating rights for these players and make them eligible for arbitration hearings.
  • A team cannot walk away from an arbitration hearing (unlike the player). If an arbitrator awards a contract greater than $3 million, a team cannot walk away from it (as opposed to what happens in MLB). The player receives the contract awarded by the arbitrator or goes back into the draft pool.

So, what are the options for an RFA? 

You can be designated as a franchise player, or a qualified offer can be made to you by your existing team before your old contract expires.

You have a couple of options as a restricted free agent.

  • Your team names you a franchise player. That means that your team is committed to paying you significant money for one year, assuming you accept the offer. It is good for you because it guarantees that you’ll receive a certain amount of money from your current team and have time to continue negotiating with them or other teams.
  • You can be made a “qualified offer” by your existing team before your contract expires. Your current club can send you an agreement pledging to pay you a specified amount of money if you sign the contract by June 30th (or the next closest date). If this happens, any other NHL teams who want to negotiate with you must first send an offer sheet to your club and draft picks if they want to sign you away from the original club.

Difference between restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents

A key difference between restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents is that RFA’s can negotiate with other teams. Still, their original team has the right to match any new contract offer. 

In contrast, UFA’s can negotiate with any team, and their original team doesn’t have any say in the matter.

So how does this process play out in real life? If a player signs an offer sheet with another team, his current team will have 7 days to decide whether or not it wants to match the offer. 

If the current team decides not to match (typically because it is strapped for cash), then the player immediately joins his new club, and his old one receives draft picks from his new club (the number of drafts depends on how much money he signed for). 

On the other hand, if a player’s current team matches an offer sheet from another club (but decides against making its qualifying offer), the player stays on that one-year contract for at least one more season before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.

How does the RFA work?

There are different classes of RFA’s, and the rights and protections each one has varies.

When an RFA is a player who has played in the NHL for less than 3 years, he is considered a “Group 1” RFA

Groups 2 and 3 RFAs are more likely to hold out because they can do so and know that their team can’t trade them or send them down to the minors. 

They only pay them if they play hockey for their team, but otherwise, they have to keep paying the salaries of unsigned players because withholding money from players is against labor law.

Can An RFA Sign With Any Other Team?

If you’re an RFA, you can sign with any team you want. Contrary to what you might expect, this is good news for RFAs. Unlike players in other leagues who are drafted into a team, you’re free to play for any team that offers you a contract.

That’s not to say there aren’t any rules at all. If you sign an offer sheet with another team and your original team matches it, you’ll stay with them (unless your original team doesn’t want you anymore). 

But if your current team decides not to match the offer sheet, then the new team is on the hook for paying whatever compensation they owe—whether it’s draft picks or money—and they gain your rights as a player.

See Also: Can an NFL player refuse a trade? 

What Happens If An RFA Signs With A New Team?

If you sign with another team, the original team gets to match the contract offer or accept compensation from the new team instead;

  • If you sign an offer sheet with another team, the original team has 7 days to match the contract.
  • If they match the offer, then you must stay with that team.
  • If they don’t match the offer, you are signed by the new team, and your original team will receive compensation from your new team in return. The compensation depends on how much money was offered in your contract:
  • $1 million – $1.295 million – the original team gets a third-round pick in return for losing you
  • $1.295 million – $2.075 million – a second-round pick
  • More than $2.075 million – first and third-round picks
  • More than $3.725 million – first-round draft pick in each of the next four drafts!

Does The Old Team Get Compensation From The Signing Of Their RFA?

The type of compensation the old team can get depends on how long you’ve been playing in the NHL and what type of contract your new team offers you. 

If you’ve been in the league for 1-3 years, and your new team offers a one-year deal at a qualifying offer that’s 110% of your previous salary, then your old team gets a first-round draft pick. 

If it’s 120%, then they get a second-rounder. 130% or more, and your old team gets a third-rounder.

If you played between 3-4 years, the same rules apply but with an additional third-round pick if they’re getting a first. 

The process is similar for 4+ year players, except with additional second/fourth-round picks when there are already first/third-rounders being paid out (respectively).


The restricted free agency exists so that players can’t go wherever they want, but they still have some rights and choices in their future careers.

The restricted free agency exists so that players can’t go wherever they want, but they still have some rights and choices in their future careers.

A player becomes a restricted free agent once he has played for 3 seasons in the NHL or reaches the age of 27 (whichever comes first). Players and teams can negotiate a new contract, but if there is no agreement by July 1st, the player becomes an RFA. The team has the option of giving him a qualifying offer, which gives them two options:

  • Signing with the team for 1 year at the value of their qualifying offer
  • Signing an offer sheet with another team (more on this below)

Wrapping Up

Free agents in the NHL change teams with the rules we have just discussed. However, players and teams are always mindful of the criteria that make an RFA (age, appearances, and years of experience.) 

So, if you were thinking, how does a restricted free agent work in the NHL? I believe you know now. 

Found this post helpful? Please share it with your friends and hockey fans. 

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