With an apparent injury to Colin White and Mark Fayne being sick earlier this week, the New Jersey Devils called up Alexander Urbom from Albany under emergency conditions. He was slated to play against the Senators on Tuesday, but White came back from injury and started in his place. Urbom would be scratched for that game and the Rangers game on Thursday before being sent back down.
This, in the long run, was a good thing. Urbom has already played 7 NHL games this season. 3 more games and his entry level contract, a $878,333 cap hit per CapGeek, would come on New Jersey's books for this season.
It's a point I've raised before when talking about the potential cost of high draft picks. I'm re-emphasizing it for the likes of Urbom and Josefson. The trade deadline is a little over 3 weeks away and it wouldn't shock many Devils fans if they trade a player or two away. That will open space on the roster and I'm sure some fans as well as some in the organization would like to see Urbom or Josefson called up to fill that spot. After all, it's not like the Devils are realistically likely to make the playoffs this season. Giving the youth a shot won't cause much damage in the long term.
Therefore, I will show how this isn't good business and why I think this could not all that good for the development of either player.
Article 9 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement - Entry Level Compensation
For this subject, the appropriate section is Article 9, which covers entry level contracts. You can download a copy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement at CapGeek.
The key sections of this article are Article 9.1(b) and Article 9.1(d), which are also cited at CapGeek's FAQ. Article 9.1(b) covers what the length of an entry level contract (ELC) can be based on the player's age. The age of the player for a contract is called out in 9.2, which is the player's age at September 15 of the calender year when they signed. Not their actual age when they signed, just when it was on that date.
Josefson signed his deal at age 19, and Urbom signed his deal when he was age 18 per September 15, 2009. Therefore, their ELCs are 3 years long. Not all Devils prospects are on 3-year ELCs. For example, Mark Fayne has only 2 years on their deals since they signed after college at age 23.
One of the characteristics that makes an ELC different from a regular contract is that the CBA allows these contracts to slide if the player signs before age 20. This is covered in Article 9.1(d)(i) (emphasis mine):
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.
This automatic extension is referred to as a contract "sliding" because the terms carry over into the extended year. Incidentally, Article 9.1(d)(ii) specifies an ELC can slide for an additional year if the player signed at age 18 and didn't play 10 or more NHL games in the first two seasons since being signed. In other words, an ELC can slide
Back to Urbom and Josefson. Urbom signed his deal at age 18 per Article 9.2 and it has slid once since he spent all of 2009-10 with Brandon of the WHL. This is shown in CapGeek's page on Urbom. This season, he has played 7 games with New Jersey. So per Article 9.1(d), Urbom can play 2 more games this entire season before his ELC kicks in. Any more with 2 would mean his cap hit is on New Jersey's books and his contract has effectively begun. If he doesn't, it will slide for a second season as per Article 9.1(d)(ii), his cap hit won't be on New Jersey's books, and the time of his deal would be begin next season.
Josefson is in a similar spot. He's played 6 games in New Jersey and any more than 3 would activate his deal for this season and his $900,000 cap hit.
Why This is Not Good for Business
Let's start with the short term problems. The New Jersey Devils aren't in cap trouble largely because Bryce Salvador and Zach Parise has been on long term injured reserve for most of this season, and Jamie Langenbrunner is now in Dallas. Even with that temporary relief, the Devils have only $948,244 free for the day according to CapGeek's salary chart. The Devils could
squeeze in one of them add both of them and still have a little space left over. CapGeek lists a max cap hit that the Devils can add today at $2,755,833. Though, should Parise or Salvador comes back unless someone with a significant cap hit on New Jersey is moved elsewhere, this becomes a problem again. Basically, activating Urbom or Josefson would just make the Devils' already difficult cap problems even harder to deal with.
Moreover, the Devils already have an incredibly large total payroll of over $64 million based on the current roster. I can't imagine ownership would be happy to see that payroll to get larger because Urbom or Josefson got 10 or more NHL games this season.
However, even if the Devil pretend the Devils do clear some space somehow through a trade or other means, it's not good business in the long-term. The basic rule of thumb for free agency under the current CBA is that a player becomes an unrestricted free agent if their contract ends after they are 27 or if they have played 7 professional seasons, which ever comes first.
There are all kind of exceptions, but to simplify it all, a player who has started their first deal - an ELC - at age 18 will need a contract as a restricted free agent at age 21 and they can become an UFA at age 25. Players can still develop at those early ages, if not hit the peaks of their career. Therefore, they can command more money - especially if the player breaks out near the end of his ELC or before he becomes an UFA.
As a result of this age-27-or-7-years requirement, it is in the team's best interest to have ELCs slide until the player has turned 20. At that point, the time for them before they hit the free agency market without restrictions is already going. Throwing them in the NHL into the fire is then a matter of whether the player is ready and whether the team can use said player. Before then, activating an 18 or 19 year old player means they have contribute almost immediately (especially if they were high draft pick) and risk paying much more money for them a lot sooner than they'd like.
In the case of the Devils, even in the long term, setting up big paydays sooner rather than later is an unforced error. Suppose the Devils give Urbom or Josefson 10 or more games this season. They'll become RFAs in 2013-14, where the Devils will already have over $14 million on their cap and, assuming they are still Devils, at least Travis Zajac, David Clarkson, and Dainius Zubrus becoming UFAs. Only Ilya Kovalchuk's cap hit will be on the books from this team when Josefson and Urbom go UFA a year early. But you throw in other long term deals (possibly Zach Parise, for example) and other additions, it binds the team sooner than they have to.
To put it bluntly, spending money when you don't have to is not good for business. Activating Urbom or Josefson this season would be doing just that. It's even dumber since the Devils don't have bucketloads of cap space or relatively low payrolls like some other teams in the NHL.
Why This is Not Good for Player Development
I'm sure many of you just read the above and thought, "Fine, it's bad for business. Forget the money. If they're ready, they should play." I can sympathize with that feeling. A main point from the high draft pick post is that throwing a player in right away means they have to earn their money right now for the team to get full value on the ELC. Josefson ($900,000) and Urbom ($878,333) are on more modest deals, after all, so they don't need to be like NHL veterans right away.
So let's talk about the players themselves. Both Urbom and Josefson have been in Albany for most of this season; Urbom's first season as a professional and Josefson's first season playing hockey in North America. In this mid-January post from Tom, he noted that Albany has typically placed Josefson on their top forward line and Urbom is in the top 4 on defense. More recently, Tom spoke at length about both players in last week's episode of Talking Red. He noted how both were progressing and even getting time on special teams. Albany may not be that great of a team this season, but they are putting in an effort every night. They're not languishing in upstate New York.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean they are ready for the next level. Tom would be a better authority than I to determine whether they are or not. Though the stats from either in Tom's update earlier this week aren't confidence inducing that they are men among boys in the A.
I am confident in saying that having either New Jersey wouldn't really be all that helpful. Tom noted that both Josefson and Urbom play significant minutes in Albany. They would almost definitely not get that in the NHL level. Josefson would be centering one of the bottom two lines and not likely get any special teams work. Urbom would likely be on the third pairing and getting minutes like Mark Fraser, Anssi Salmela, and Matthew Corrente: somewhere between 12-15 per game. I know this because this is what happened in the little bit of time both played in the NHL earlier this season. Urbom averaged 12:03, Josefson averaged 12:53, and neither did all that much (then again, not many Devils did then, but that's beside the point). Both would be playing at a tougher and faster level, true, but they won't be playing nearly as much. I'm not sure how that plus NHL practices are better for development.
While I know both are highly touted prospects, both made a pretty big leap going into the AHL this season. On top of that, Josefson has had a significant injury, so he hasn't played all that much in general this season. I would rather have them hone their game by playing more minutes in the AHL than getting torched in the NHL. Developing players are going to make errors and have flaws in their game. It's better than this gets worked on at a lower level in a league where every team has loads of developing players, as opposed to the best league in the world where
A perfect example of that would be Mattias Tedenby. He's 20 so his time before free agency has begun, so playing him in the NHL comes down to whether he can handle. However, as with many rookies, the flaws in his game have been exposed. Jacques Lemaire doesn't hate the guy - otherwise he'd be in Albany so fast, it would make your head spin. However, Lemaire knows that Tedenby's current limitations (read: defense) hurts the team. So he's not going to play him so much, or at all in some games, until Tedenby improves. Which, of course, doesn't really happen unless he gets a shot. It's a tough situation to be in, and I don't see how risking Urbom or Josefson to be put in that spot
To be fair, there's a significant difference between Tedenby and the two prospects in question. Lemaire and the Devils feel Tedenby is still good enough to be at this level, and Tedenby has the advantage of an extra year of experience over Urbom and Josefson. Urbom and Josefson are catching up in that regard.
Lastly, the Devils have 30 games left this season. Throwing Urbom or Josefson into the NHL fire for only 20-30 games to close out the season is an awfully short time to get re-acclimated to a tougher and faster game while trying to still get better.
Overall, I'm not really convinced that Urbom or Josefson would benefit by playing the end of this season in New Jersey. The spots they would take wouldn't be good, there aren't a lot of games left, and it's questionable as if they are ready for the next level. If they were dominant at the AHL level, that would be one thing. From what I understand, that's not happening - it would be better to re-evaluate them at training camp for next season to see if they are truly ready for the next step.
From the business perspective, the ELCs for Alexander Urbom and Jacob Josefson can and should slide for another season. To do this, all they have to do is not play in New Jersey for the rest of the season. From a development perspective, this would be fine as both Josefson and Urbom would benefit by getting more time in the AHL then getting limited minutes and more pressure in the NHL.
If or when the Devils make a trade or if they have to call someone up for injury reasons, I hope they look at the other players in Albany who aren't on ELCs that can slide. Urbom and Josefson are the only ones in Albany who do. Adam Henrique and David McIntyre are centers whose deals are underfoot. Earlier this season, we've already seen Olivier Magnan-Grenier (18 games) and a little of Tyler Eckford, though Dan Kelly or Harry Young could be given a shot should the Devils want to try someone new. There are other options for this season. Urbom and Josefson can be given as much time as possible next season.
So let their contracts slide into next season.
Please feel free to offer your take on this in the comments. Thanks for reading. (Note: I updated the opening of the business section since I misread what CapGeek listed for the team. Thanks to ILWT user Triumph44 for pointing it out.)