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Photo Credit: Allen Douglas/Kamloops Blazers

Don’t expect Connor Zary to sign until the New Year

It goes without saying that the Calgary Flames are pretty fond of 2020 first round selection Connor Zary. And the 24th player selected in October’s draft is pretty excited to be a Flame someday. While Zary’s camp is closing in on cementing his entry level deal with the club, we’re told it likely won’t be inked until 2021.

When Zary signs ends up having some implications for both him and the Flames moving forward.

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Based on Zary’s draft placement, we more or less know what his ELC will look like. He’ll get a three year deal with a $925,000 cap hit (including the maximum signing bonus of $92,500 per season) and likely no performance bonuses. (Typically players drafted in the 20s don’t get performance bonuses, unless there’s extenuating circumstances.)

But signing in 2021 rather than December 2020 carries some interesting knock-on effects for everyone involved. We broke down the CBA implications back in October:

Two CBA paragraphs are key here: Articles 9.1 and 9.2.

Article 9.2 defines the age of players as it relates to their entry-level signings:

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As used in this Article, “age,” including “First SPC Signing Age,” means a Player’s age on September 15 of the calendar year in which he signs an SPC, regardless of his actual age on the date he signs such SPC.

Zary was 18 years old on September 15 – he turned 19 on September 25 – so if he signs his ELC before the end of 2020, his “First SPC Signing Age” will be 18. If he signs in 2021, his “First SPC Signing Age” will be 19.

Article 9.1, sub-section (d), describes the mechanics of the CBA’s “entry level slide”:

(d) (i) In the event that an 18 year old or 19 year old Player signs an SPC with a Club but does not play at least ten (10) NHL Games in the first season under that SPC, the term of his SPC and his number of years in the Entry Level System shall be extended for a period of one (1) year, except that this automatic extension will not apply to a Player who is 19 according to Section 9.2 by virtue of turning 20 between September 16 and December 31 in the year in which he first signs an SPC. Unless a Player and Club expressly agree to the contrary, in the event a Player’s SPC is extended an additional year in accordance with this subsection, all terms of the SPC, with the exception of Signing Bonuses, but including Paragraph 1 Salary, games played bonuses and Exhibit 5 bonuses, shall be extended; provided, however, that the Player’s Paragraph 1 Salary shall be extended in all circumstances.

(d) (ii) In the event that a Player signs his first SPC at age 18 and has had his SPC extended pursuant to Subsection (i), and such Player does not play at least ten (10) NHL Games in the second season under that SPC, then the term of his SPC and his number of years in the Entry Level System shall be extended for one (1) additional year. Unless a Player and Club expressly agree to the contrary, in the event a Player’s SPC is extended an additional year in accordance with this Subsection, all terms of the SPC, with the exception of Signing Bonuses, but including Paragraph 1 Salary, games played bonuses and Exhibit 5 bonuses, shall be extended; provided, however, that the Player’s Paragraph 1 Salary shall be extended in all circumstances.

In simpler, less legalese, terms, here’s the differences between signing in 2020 or 2021.

If Zary signs in 2020:

  • Zary’s ELC can slide twice (unless he plays 10+ NHL games in either of the first two seasons), functionally extending the ELC to expire following the 2024-25 season. If that happened, the ELC wouldn’t start running until 2022-23.
  • Because of his 2001 birthday, Zary could play in the AHL for 2021-22 and his ELC would slide (see prior point), so the Flames could have an incentive to park him in the minors for a year to get a free season of development out of the ELC.
  • Because of the ELC slide(s), Zary wouldn’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2025-26 season. (This is huge because with teams avoiding getting entangled in offer sheets, salary arbitration is often the only negotiating leverage RFAs have.)
  • Because of the way signing bonuses change the cap hits on sliding ELCs, Zary’s deal would have a cap hit of $863,333 if it slid twice. (Again, perhaps an incentive in a flat cap system for a cap-challenge Flames to allow Zary’s deal to slide.)

If Zary signs in 2021:

  • The deal slides in 2020-21, but starts running in 2021-22 regardless of where Zary plays. If he’s in the AHL, the NHL or somehow in the WHL as an overager, the clock is ticking on his ELC.
  • Zary becomes eligible for salary arbitration after the 2024-25 season.
  • Because of the way signing bonuses change the cap hits on sliding ELCs, Zary’s deal would have a cap hit of $894,167 since it would slide once.

The Flames believe in Zary and the player seems very excited to join the squad, so there’s very little risk that Zary won’t sign with the Flames in the near future.

But with the CBA quirks of his specific situation – specifically the extra slide year and delaying the possibility of salary arbitration – and that players with his draft positioning usually don’t get performance bonuses, it makes sense for Zary to wait to sign until 2021 and give himself every opportunity he can to crack the NHL roster (and remove any small incentives the club may have to delay his NHL arrival).