Interview Part I: The Basics of Contracts

Earlier this summer, I got to sit down with Head Coach Tim Branham to talk hockey.

Given that the off-season work of finalizing 2016-17 trades and rosters had just ended, and the beginnings of the 2017-18 team were underway, it seemed like an appropriate time to get into the nitty-gritty of contracts, and the thought-process that goes into building an ECHL team.

In this first of a two-part Q&A, we talk the salary cap, one-way vs. two-way contracts, the protected list, season-ending rosters, and college signings.

Namiko Hitotsubashi: Let’s start with the salary cap: How exactly does it work? Are contracts all one year long?

Tim Branham: Contracts are 24-hour contracts. A player could sign a contract today, and I could cut them tomorrow. It’s just on a daily rate. So they sign a weekly rate, but you pay them on a daily rate. Our salary cap is a weekly salary cap. The last year was 1,2600 dollars, next year it goes up to 12,800, so next year I have 12,800 dollars a week to sign 20 players. So the players on the reserve don’t count to the salary cap. Players on the injury reserve, as well, don’t count on the salary cap. So we have 20 active roster spots, two reserve spots, which we can put on and off at any time, then you get as many players as you want on the injured reserve. Any players on the injury reserve or the reserve don’t count to the salary cap. And you can have less than 20 players on the salary cap. My first two years, I would go one less player a lot of times, put 19 on the active roster.

NH: When you have guys on one-way vs two-way contracts, how does that work?

TB: That’s different. AHL or NHL contracts, those are year long contracts. Well, they’re a year contract. They get paid—say they signed for 60 thousand dollars, they get paid only during the hockey season. So they get a pretty good chunk of change through the hockey season, but they don’t get paid in the summer, so that’s how those contracts work. But not the ECHL contracts. There’s always been talk about the ECHL going to, like, maybe five guaranteed contracts. You know, you can sign like…a Jon Puskar to a guaranteed contract. You know you’re not gonna trade him, he’s not going anywhere, but it’s too difficult, and the owners haven’t decided on doing that.

NH: Does that mean that ECHL contracts don’t get paid out through the summer?

TB: Correct. ECHL players do not get paid in the summer.

NH: When, say, a Kevin Boyle comes and plays for the Grizzlies, what does that mean in terms of contracts?

TB: So that’s under Anaheim. It does count toward the salary cap. Any of those contracted players, whether it’s American League, or NHL, they count to 525 on the cap, so 525 dollars. If you get good contracted players, that’s awesome, cause they’re really cheap on the salary cap. Whereas that player, say it’s like, Charlie Sarault, he’s making X amount of money–lots of money–X amount of money, playing here, but he only counts at 525 on the salary cap, where if you want to sign Charlie to an ECHL deal, that’s like a thousand-dollar player, so you get him for 525 on the cap. So it’s beneficial to have a good affiliate that sends good players.

NH: So, there was a protected list, and then there was an end of season roster. What are they exactly, and what is the difference?

TB: I’ve always wondered what those rosters mean, and I was always rolling my eyes, because I just felt that they were really dumb, however, having said that, finally, this year, I was like, ‘Oh this is why they have the list!’ because I had future considerations out there, so that first list you put out, you can have as many players on there as you want. There are certain limitations to what players can be on it, so like, the players that you protected the year before, but didn’t sign the qualifying offer, you still have their rights. So like, those qualifying offers I just issued out, if those players don’t sign them, I still own their rights all year. So if they want to play in this league, they have to play for me. That being said, if they don’t sign that offer, I can sign them for whatever I want. I can sign them for league minimum, 450 a week, if I wanted, or we can negotiate a different amount. But I own their rights.

That first list is like, ‘Hey, this is my protected list. These are the players that I have the rights to.’ All the players that finished our season, all the players that didn’t sign their qualifying offers, all the players that have been in the American League, but that you signed to ECHL deals, then from that list– so I had future considerations out there, right, I traded [Erik] Bradford and [Tim] Daly, traded Colin Martin to Toledo, in order to get [Gabriel] Verpaelst. That’s the deal I made.

I can recruit a whole new team for next season so making the playoffs is a top priority.  Next year really doesn’t matter.

NH: Especially if it’s just signing rights…

TB: Yeah. I could go sign a whole new team. Oh, I lost two players? Ok, I’ve gotta go find that player again. It doesn’t matter. In this league, it doesn’t matter. So I never care about next year, ever. I need to do what I need to do to make playoffs, and to win this year. I know that’s hard to understand, and hard to take sometimes, like, the next year, sometimes you wish you had players, but you gotta do what you gotta do to make playoffs, and I really feel like the moves I made helped us make playoffs. Sometimes they turn out, and sometimes they don’t. I really feel like most of my trades have been good. There’ve been a couple I regret, but for the most part…

Anyway, so that protected list, that first list that goes out, the teams I have future considerations with, they can choose from that list, however you traded. Those are the players you have rights to, so those are the players that you can trade now to the other teams that you owe futures to. I owed one to Toledo for Bradford, I owed two players to Norfolk, and really, honestly, all those are is gentlemen’s agreements. Future considerations mean nothing to the league, it’s just a gentlemen’s agreement between the two coaches.

And then once I’ve made those trades, then what is it, June 15th? So then June 15th the other list goes out. Now, that’s a max of 20 players. So like, I traded those three players away, but I still had like, 24, 23 or 24 players I had to chose from. Players I know aren’t gonna play, or I don’t want next year, I’m not going to protect them. And then you have between June 16th, and July 1st to sign any of the players that you want for next year, keeping in mind that come July 1st, you can only qualify, you can only protect, eight of those players, so you want to sign as many as you can. So like, I’ve brought back a lot of players this year, players that I’ve already signed, tons of them, right? I’m really happy about that.

But, at the end of the day, if none of them wanted to come back, I can only protect eight of them. But I was fortunate. I got a bunch of them signed, then I only had to get off six qualifying offers. There’s no point in qualifying a veteran, say like, [Michael] Pelech or [Mathieu] Aubin. If they get a qualifying offer from me, since they’re veterans, they played more than 260 games, come September 1st, they’re free agents, they can go wherever they want. So it doesn’t really make sense to qualify a veteran, that’s why you hardly see veteran players get qualified. Just because if they wait it out, the can go sign anywhere they want. That’s why there are hardly ever any veterans on that list.

NH: So with someone like a Marc-André Lévesque, who signed in France, if he wants to come back and play in the ECHL, he has to come back here?

Yeah, he’s got to come back and play for me now. He signed in France, and now he has to play for me.

NH: When you’re going to sign a whole new team at the beginning of the next year, basically the pool you can then draw from is anyone who hasn’t signed an agreement with another team, and is a free agent?

TB: Correct. Yeah, so any player – if you’re on an American League deal last year, say like, who did we have, Kenton Helgesen. There’s no ECHL rights attached to him, cause he’s on an NHL deal, so anybody can sign him right now. Any of the free agents could have played in the ECHL, could have played in the American League, could have played in Europe, Division I college players, Division III college players, major junior players (OHL, WHL, Quebec Major Junior League), those are the players that you’re pooling from to sign for next year.

NH: With college signings, we had one guy that you signed last season to play for us this coming season, Brandon Harms I think? How does that work?

TB: When I claimed him on waivers, and he didn’t report, we suspended him, and were able to keep his rights for the following season. Those are ECHL rules.

NH: So when you suspend a player mid season you keep his rights?

TB: That’s right, you can keep his rights for the next year. Like Robbie Donahoe, I know there’s a couple of other D-men that I had suspended, but I didn’t end up protecting them, I didn’t have enough spaces, but yeah, like Robbie Donahoe I could have protected. If they sign an ECHL contract, and then you suspend them after the first day, then you can keep their rights and qualify them for the next year.

NH: Then you also had Robbie Nichols, the goalie who came and played one game for us?

TB: Robbie Nichols, I could have protected him, but I didn’t.

NH: In a situation like that, is there a deadline before which you can or can’t sign college players, how does signing players out of college work?

TB: During the season, you can sign them any time, it’s like an amateur try out, but they’re not going to come to you until their school, until their season is done. In the summer, you can sign them any time. Well, sorry. After June 16th. So technically, you can’t sign anyone till June 16th.


Look for part two on the anatomy of an ECHL team in the coming days!


Image courtesy of Josie Vimahi/Utah Grizzlies

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