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Here’s How Canucks Prospect Jack Rathbone Can Become a Free Agent Before 2022

Jack Rathbone has always been a tricky player to get a handle on.

When the Massachusetts-native was taken 95th overall by the Canucks in 2017, we didn’t have a lot to go on in terms of analysis. Rathbone has played the majority of his draft season in the US High School circuit, which creates issues both in terms of available data and available video footage. Without the ability to crunch numbers or lay eyes on the player, we had to go off of a) the select few public scouting services that were able to see him in person that year, and b) trust that the Canucks knew what they were doing (and honestly, by this point it was already abundantly clear that their northeastern US scouting was pretty spot on).

Since then, Rathbone has thrown additional wrenches in the gears by deferring his freshman year of college, in order to stay at home and help care for his autistic brother (as the father of an autistic child, I have infinite respect for this decision). An extra year in US Prep hockey didn’t make it easier to analyze what type of player Rathbone was or would become. A couple of appearances at prospect development camps informed us that he was a good skater with a powerful shot, but devising opinions based on full game action was proving tricky.

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That delayed start to his college career has also made the status of the Canucks’ negotiating rights to him rather confusing. This came up again yesterday when TSN 1040’s Jason Brough tweeted, fairly innocuously, that Rathbone would be able to choose free agency in 2021.

Confusion and chaos ensued, including attempts to use a CanucksArmy article written two years ago by Ryan Biech to make two opposite points.

The basic interpretation of the NCAA-based free agency rule is that a team has until the fourth August 15th following the date the player was drafted, essentially giving them four years at college, and then an opportunity to choose unrestricted free agency by not signing with the team that drafted them.

With Rathbone, however, things aren’t quite so cut and dry, seeing as he didn’t go to college that first season after being drafted. The delayed start to his collegiate career technically adds an extra year of right exclusivity for the Canucks, allowing them to retain his rights until August 15, 2022 – five years after he committed to Harvard University.

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But here’s the wrinkle – this only remains the case so long as Rathbone remains committed to Harvard. Should he, say, de-commit and leave college following the end of the 2020-21 campaign, and give notice to the NHL central registry of his doing so, the drafting team (in this case, the Canucks) have but 30 days to sign him lest they lose those exclusive negotiating rights.

Ryan, astutely as ever, actually made mention of this in the very article that has been bandied about as proof that he won’t be eligible for free agency until 2022, stating:

Usually, the player will go directly to the NCAA, and the drafting team will retain his rights until Aug 15th after his senior season, or they will have 30 days after he declares to be leaving College early to sign him — a clause that goaltender Cal Petersen used to leave the Sabres organization and sign with the Kings. (emphasis added)

In May of 2017, the Univeristy of Notre Dame announced that Cal Petersen was forgoing his final year of college eligibility in order to sign an NHL contract. That notice started the clock on the Sabres’ ability to sign Petersen, which they were of course unable to do.

This exemption is laid out in the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (the CBA) in Article 8.6(c)(iii) and (iv).

Article 8.6(c)(iii) stipulates that:

If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and remains a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain the exclusive rights of negotiation for his services through and including the August 15 following the graduation of his college class. (emphasis added)

Article 8.6(c)(iv) further adds that:

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If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the later of: (a) the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft, or (b) thirty (30) days after NHL Central Registry receives notice that the Player is no longer a bona fide college student; provided that if the Player ceases to be a bona fide college student on or after January 1 of an academic year and the Player: (1) is in his fourth year of college and has commenced his fourth year of NCAA eligibility, or (2) is in his fourth year of college and is scheduled to graduate from college at the end of his fourth year, then in the circumstances described in (1) or (2), the Club shall retain the exclusive right of negotiation for such Player’s services through and including the August 15 following the date on which he ceases to be a bona fide college student. (emphasis added)

Working through that, in the event that Rathbone does not remain a college student through graduation, the Canucks will retain Jack Rathbone’s rights until the later of:

  1. June 1st, 2021 (the fourth June 1st following his selection); or
  2. Thirty days after notifying the NHL that he is forgoing his NCAA eligibility.

As Rathbone will be in his third college year at that time, the second half of that section will not apply.

For clarity, that does mean that if Jack Rathbone decides tomorrow that he is going to leave Harvard to pursue professional hockey, the Canucks will still retain his rights until June 1st, 2021.

It also means that the earliest he could be eligible for unrestricted free agency is June 1st, 2021 – provided that he announces his departure on or before May 2nd, 2021; otherwise, he’ll be eligible from 30 days after whichever date he leaves school. If Rathbone returns to Harvard for his senior year and remains there until January 1st, 2022, the exemption closes and the Canucks will have his exclusive rights until August 15th, 2022.

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It should also be noted that if a player in Rathbone’s situation signs between June 1st and June 30th, the contract will be deemed to begin in that league year (pursuant to the prohibition in Article 50.8(d)), prompting additional cap considerations and effectively burning a contract year. This is likely why the Los Angeles Kings waited just beyond the 30-day waiting period and signed Petersen on July 1st in 2017.

The fact that it has to be Rathbone’s choice to leave college early and elect free agency shouldn’t be understated. The dynamics are a little different here than when a player has already graduated college and doesn’t have to make the decision between professional hockey and their education. From what we’ve heard from Rathbone, he takes his education very seriously and in all likelihood will choose to stay in college for that fourth year.

There you have it: the Canucks have at minimum a year and seven(ish) months to sign Jack Rathbone to a pro contract, and potentially an extra year on top of that. Plenty of time to bring the blossoming young defenceman into the fold.