With today's reports of Lawrence Nycolat attending a Caps practice and subsequent (limited and quickly dismissed) discussion of his potentially joining the team on the upcoming roadtrip, I spent some time looking at professional contracts. Many fans have at least heard of the "50 players under contract" rule, but the details are a bit trickier.
In researching the specifics of the "50 man reserve list," I stumbled across an incredibly helpful piece on a Maple Leaf's blog. I have decided to adapt that piece here, with the specifics changed to fit the Capitals.Much of the personnel discussion by Caps fans this offseason and into the current season has centered around the salary cap, and understandably so. This is a number that translates well across sports, and you don't have to be familiar with the intricacies of the CBA to understand it. As of today (per Capgeek) the Capitals stand about $1.7million below the cap, roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of cap space. What that number doesn't say is that the Caps are currently using all 50 out of 50 available Standard Player Contracts.
A Standard Player Contract (or SPC for short) is pretty much what it sounds like: an NHL-level pro contract. A player must have a contract like this to play in the NHL. A player with an SPC can be assigned to an AHL or ECHL (or WHL or other junior team, more on that later), but an AHL player does not need an SPC to play with their team. Boyd Kane, for example, plays for the Hershey Bears but is not under contract with the Capitals (or any other NHL team for that matter).
In Section 1 ("Definitions") in the CBA, the limits on the number of player contracts, and number of players a team can hold rights for, are defined under the term "Reserve Lists". A Reserve list is defined in Section 1 as
… the list of players to whom a Club has rights including all Unsigned Draft Choices, all Players signed to an SPC (whether or not currently playing in the NHL), and all Players who have signed an SPC but who have subsequently been returned to Juniors. A Club may have on its Reserve List, at any one
time, not more than 90 Players …
From this list of 90 players to which the club owns rights, a maximum of 50 and minimum of 24 may be signed to an SPC at any one time. Any team operating below the minimum or above the maximum limits is subject to a penalty of the loss of draft picks.
From that alone, it appears that even if the Caps wanted to sign Nycholat to fly with the team today, they wouldn't be able to. (In this instance, Chris Bourque complicates things. My reading is that since the Caps extended Bourque a qualifying offer over the summer, he counts against the 50. It's entirely possible I'm wrong on that, if so I trust that someone will let me know.) Now, having said that, if the Caps really and truly wanted another D-man for the trip who wasn't already under contract, they actually could sign Nycholat. Enter the "Slide Rule."
Under the CBA quoted above, a player who is returned to Juniors prior to playing 11 NHL games does not count against a team's 50 SPCs. This rule dovetails with the "years" of an entry level contract. Take Cody Eakin for example. Eakin is signed to a three year entry level contract. Because he was returned to the WHL without playing any NHL (regular season) games, his contract "slides" for a year. A year from now, even though he will have already been under contract for a year, Eakin will still be in year one of his contract. What matters for this discussion though, is that Eakin's SPC has "slid" right off of the list of contracts, creating space for more contracts if the Caps wish to pursue them.
Currently, Eakin, Philipp Grubauer, and Brandon Anderson have SPCs with the Capitals, but do not count against the 50-SPC limit because they have been returned to their Junior teams. This leaves the Caps with 3 (or 4 if I screwed up on my Bourque analysis) open contract slots available.
Long story short, if the Capitals really wanted to sign Nycholat, they absolutely could.
On a personal note, this is my first FanPost, so I would love some feedback.