I don't blame NHL fans, even very passionate and well-informed ones, for getting the off-ice rules wrong from time to time. I do blame them for not knowing that a two-way contract has nothing to do with waivers, but that is here nor there. Still, the rules that guide NHL general managers in their dealings are more complicated than ever, and the document which guides these complications is stunningly opaque. GMs constantly get the fine points wrong, so why should I expect more out of fans?
The Devils recently used 2012 draft pick Stefan Matteau in his 6th game of the season, meaning that his contract stops sliding - he'll now be a restricted free agent in July 2015. Matteau was drafted 29th overall, which is about where he was expected to go. He put up unremarkable numbers in the QMJHL during the lockout. In the NHL, he's been getting about ten minutes a game, almost all of it at even strength, and has recorded zero points. In short, it seems very stupid to start an ELC for a player like this - Matteau's not that good now, he'll now be restricted in 2015, and he's going to be an unrestricted free agent in 2019, two years earlier than his age suggests. Or is he?
Unrestricted free agency is governed by two things. First, a player's age - if he's 27 or older when his contract expires, he's an unrestricted free agent. The other thing is accrued seasons - if a player has 7 or more accrued seasons, at the conclusion of his contract, he is an unrestricted free agent. The key here is the words 'accrued season', which means something very specific - an accrued season happens when a player is on the roster for 40 or more NHL games in a season. He doesn't have to play those games, just be on the roster. I don't know what counts as an 'accrued season' in a 48 game schedule, but I'm guessing it's in the same proportion as X is to 48 as 40 is 82 (which is around 23). Now the Devils can still send Matteau back to junior even though his ELC has begun - it's just that teams don't frequently do this because ELCs on 18 year olds capable of playing in the NHL usually represent tremendous value - that player is likely a future star. It doesn't make sense to use a year off that contract unless you're going to use the entire year. However, Matteau is not a likely star, and his contract this year is for $925,000, and the Devils are not close to being a cap team, either now or in the future. If that's the case, while Matteau's second contract will probably be for something between $1 million and $1.5 million per season, his making a few extra hundred thousand dollars on his second contract is largely immaterial. Furthermore, Matteau having not played in junior hockey in 2011-12, is eligible for the AHL next year - the Devils could keep him there and use him in the NHL as an injury replacement, making sure that he only goes over the 40 game limit in an emergency (or if he gets injured). Conceivably, the Devils could get 57 games out of Matteau before his free agency clock starts ticking, giving him NHL experience while not sabotaging the far future.