Arbitrator Rules in Favor of Van Ryn

Mike Van Ryn, the former Michigan defenseman and 1998 first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, won an arbitration case on Thursday granting him unrestricted free-agency, a decision that could have a great impact on college hockey and the NHL Draft.

Players who are chosen in the NHL Draft have two years to sign with the team that selected them, or else they go back into the draft. However, rules say that NHL teams maintain rights to U.S. college players until they leave school, a necessary stipulation since doing so would end the player’s collegiate eligibility. If a college player is left unsigned after graduation, he becomes a free agent.

Van Ryn left Michigan after two years to play for Sarnia of the OHL, thus forcing the Devils’ hand. But, since Van Ryn was too old to be eligible for the NHL Draft, he said that made him an unrestricted free agent. The Devils argued that they still retained his rights, but lost the case.

For U.S. college teams, it means contending with a player who may use leaving school as a bargaining ploy with their NHL drafted team. Or, players may leave school just to get away from the team that drafted them.

Most importantly, NHL teams may become reluctant to draft college players, knowing they can just leave school after two years in order to force free agency. It would come just as college hockey is seeing more of its players drafted highly by NHL teams.

“This is not good for college hockey,” Devils general manager, and former Providence coach, Lou Lamoriello, told the Bergen (N.J.) Record. “It’s good for the pockets (of the players), and the agents. To me, it’s not good for the development of the player.”

Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said recent rulings and changes to the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Player’s Association have adversely affected college hockey.

“Over the last 10 years, the rules have seemed to affect college hockey more adversely than major juniors,” Gwozdecky said. “But the game itself is at an all-time high. The game itself continues to flourish and progress. We continue to develop players who graduate with their degrees and move on to the professional ranks. I think that says a lot about college hockey. You can put obstacles in the way, but this is a great thing we have here.”

On the other hand, the ruling may just be reinforcing a player’s existing rights.

“There’s no question that young guys are going to test the waters on that,” said Gwozdecky. “But [by] the same [token], if a guy goes to college, he wants to go to college to get a degree.”

“I do think it gives more leverage to the college guys who are picked high,” said Boston College defenseman Brooks Orpik, a potential first-round pick, to the Bergen (N.J.) Record. “The NHL doesn’t like the ruling, but it will be interesting to see what happens. I don’t think it will hurt college hockey, but NHL teams might shy away from picking guys like that.”

The case was decided by Lawrence Holden, an independent arbitrator in Boston that is also involved in the Alexei Yashin case against the Ottawa Senators.

Van Ryn is still restricted by the NHL’s rookie salary cap, and the Devils receive a second-round pick in this year’s draft as compensation for losing him.