The Rise of Two-Year AHL Rookie Contracts, an NHL Contract Management Strategy

Matt Murray (Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

As we say a lot in "We Win Here", my book with Sean Shapiro about Texas and the AHL, the purpose of the AHL is increasingly to serve the NHL teams. Every passing year it becomes more true. One recent trend that points to that purpose is the rise of two-year AHL contracts for undrafted players coming out of college or the junior ranks.

Texas fans will be most recently familiar with this new trend with goalie Matt Murray. The UMass-Amherst product signed an ATO with Texas at the end of 2021-22 and then converted that to a two-year deal, which was announced over the summer despite likely being signed at the time of his ATO. Over the course of this season, he converted that into an NHL contract with Dallas when the Stars had need for a backup goalie.

Over the course of the Stars' tenure in the AHL, the two-year contract has typically been reserved for veteran players. You might hand one out to a player that you expect to be your captain. Before Murray, all two-year AHL deals that Texas had signed were for captains. 

The two-year deal is a nice piece of business for both sides in a veteran deal. The player gets stability that they normally don't find at the AHL level where most contracts are one-year deals. If the team believes the player is a top contributor, they also get to lock them up without chance of losing them to free agency either in the AHL or overseas. For a certain type of player, that stability is paramount. I'd point to Curtis McKenzie, who forewent other opportunities to play more NHL games to play in a stable environment in Texas, as a key example.

Matt Murray's signing broke the mold. At first, it seemed like a one-off but then I noticed something over the past month or so.

First, Zach Metsa, who captained Quinnipiac to an NCAA Championship, signed a two-year deal with Rochester. Then just this week fellow Quinnipiac teammate Ethan de Jong signed with Bakersfield on a two-year deal as well.

For players who are undrafted, there isn't a lot of stability out there. The multi-year ELC is not very common and most of these players end up on AHL-only or two-way AHL/ECHL deals if they play in the league.

In addition to that stability, the two-year AHL deal also opens up possibilities for the player. While Dallas might be the first in line to sign a player like Murray, if he gets hot and someone needs a goalie, he could have been signed by any of the 32 NHL teams. That open door for other offers is enticing. However, the AHL club's parent org is more than likely the first choice given the way they are opening up their arms to embrace the player.

In talking to hockey ops folks about this, one bit of interesting cap and contract manuevering came up as well. The two-year AHL deal is a way to have a player in your system without having his contract count against the NHL's 50-contract limit. 

All around, this seems like a trend that will continue as teams look for more and more creative ways to get talent developed within the rules of the NHL cap and contract systems.