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An obscure California labor law could let these NHL stars opt out of contracts right now

An unlikely scenario that’s entirely possible.

Los Angeles Kings v Anaheim Ducks - Game Seven Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

I’ve got some bad news for you, California-based NHL teams. Yes, all three of you.

On Wednesday, baseball-oriented Fangraphs published a fascinating article highlighting a California law that could have major ramifications for that state’s pro sports teams that few know about. It’s a provision in the California Labor Code called Section 2855, and it’s pretty shocking (emphasis mine):

Not necessarily. A relatively obscure provision under California law — specifically, Section 2855 of the California Labor Codelimits all personal services contracts (i.e., employment contracts) in the state to a maximum length of seven years. In other words, this means that if an individual were to sign an employment contract in California lasting eight or more years, then at the conclusion of the seventh year the employee would be free to choose to either continue to honor the agreement, or else opt out and seek employment elsewhere.

Although the California legislature has previously considered eliminating this protection for certain professional athletes – including Major League Baseball playersno such amendment has passed to date. Consequently, Section 2855 would presumptively apply to any player employed by one of the five major-league teams residing in California.

Yeesh. Fangraphs applied this to Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, who signed a six-year, $144 million extension in 2014. That’s an important to note, because it means the law doesn’t limit itself to term remaining on the contracts.

It’s not even about the contract alone. Section 2855 applies “whenever an employer has a contractual right to its worker’s services for a total of eight or more years, even if transpiring under a series of multiple contracts,” according to Fangraphs.

And, under the most strict interpretation of the provision, Fangraph explains:

... Section 2855 would allow a player to opt-out of a contract after year four of a six-year contract extension, so long as he has been employed by the team for a total of seven or more years.

So let’s apply this to the three California-based NHL teams (Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings) and see who is eligible to exploit this rule. To sum up, these are the requirements:

  • He has to have been employed by that California-based team for a total of seven or more years.
  • That includes minor leagues!
  • It can also include players who didn’t come up with the team but signed contracts for seven or more years.

Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Notable eligible players:

  • Anze Kopitar (anytime)
  • Dustin Brown (anytime)
  • Jeff Carter (‘17-’18)
  • Marian Gaborik (‘19-’20)
  • Alec Martinez (anytime)
  • Drew Doughty (anytime)
  • Jake Muzzin (anytime)
  • Jonathan Quick (anytime)

That’s, uh, a lot of big names.

Kopitar signed an eight-year, $80 million deal last season. He’s been under contract with the Kings organization since his draft year in 2005. So he’s been eligible to use this opt-out law for some time, now. He’s the captain and not going anywhere, though. I wouldn’t worry about him.

Nor would I worry about Doughty. The reigning Norris Trophy winner is under contract through 2018-19 at $7 million a season. Like Kopitar, the Kings have kept Doughty under contract since his 2008 draft season. He could’ve opted out two years ago. But why should he? He’s a cornerstone.

Quick might be a different case. The 30-year-old netminder is in the fourth year of a 10-year, $58 million deal. It’s already extremely unlikely that a goalie will be playing at a level worthy of that contract until he’s 36 years old, and not ridiculous to assume a divorce is inevitable at some point. Could Quick use this California law to make that split easier? We’ll see.

All three of those players were raised in the Kings’ organization. Carter and Gaborik recently signed long-term deals after being acquired through trades. Carter’s 11-year contract expires in 2021-22; Gaborik’s seven-year deal is up in ’20-21. If things turn sour, they both are close to eligibility for that labor law opt-out. Gaborik seems like the more likely one.

And Kings fans will be happy to know that the law allows Dustin Brown to part ways from the team immediately.

Anaheim Ducks

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Notable eligible players:

  • Corey Perry (anytime)
  • Ryan Getzlaf (anytime)
  • Ryan Kesler (‘21-’22)
  • Rickard Rakell (‘19-’20)
  • Hampus Lindholm (‘19-’20)
  • Sami Vatanen (‘18-’19)
  • Cam Fowler (‘17-’18)
  • John Gibson (‘19-’20)

Perry and Getzlaf aren’t just the highest-paid players in Anaheim; they’re also the longest-tenured on a team getting younger by the year. They can opt-out anytime with this labor law, but that is entirely unlikely. Both love it there in Anaheim and might end up with their numbers retired one day.

The rest are ... interesting. The most notable name is Cam Fowler, who is eligible for this opt-out as soon as next season. His name has swirled on the trade market all season, so if that trigger gets pulled and he gets sent out of state he exits this conversation. But what a story it would be if he jumps ship before a trade ahead of his free agency year next season, eh?

Vatanen, Lindholm, and Rakell are all in their mid-20s and under new long-term contracts. Kesler has only been with the team for four years, meaning his chance to opt-out won’t come until the twilight of his career. Gibson will need an expensive extension soon, as well. Of those five, the defensemen color this hypothetical discussion the best. It’s a crowded blue-line in Anaheim. Not room for everyone.

San Jose Sharks

NHL: Ottawa Senators at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Notable eligible players:

  • Joe Thornton (anytime)
  • Patrick Marleau (anytime)
  • Logan Couture (anytime)
  • Joe Pavelski (anytime)
  • Brent Burns (‘19-’20)
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic (anytime)
  • Justin Braun (‘17-’18)

Out of all these Californian teams, the Sharks could be gutted the hardest and soonest if this was a law more players used or knew about.

Thornton is close to retiring, but the latest word is he wants a three-year deal this offseason. If that happens, he could still opt out at any point. If the Sharks also keep Marleau, he could opt out at any point. Both have spent more than a decade in Silicon Valley.

Couture isn’t going anywhere, but he could. He’s been under contract with San Jose since his 2007 draft season and won’t be a free agent until 2019-20. Pavelski and Vlasic have both been eligible for this opt-out provision since 2013. All three are key cogs in the Sharks’ machine; losing even one to this provision would be a disaster.

Burns just re-upped until 2024-25. Don’t worry about him.

* * *

In fact, I wouldn’t worry about any of these players. Fangraphs explained it best. Section 2855 has never been used in the case of a unionized employee, so it’s uncharted territory for the NHLPA and NHL. As Fangraphs suggests, the NHL could argue that the Collective Bargaining Agreement supersedes California law, but a Supreme Court decision seems to refute that idea.

Any player using this labor law would have a legitimate case.

But what a headache that would be. Per Fangraphs:

Any attempt by a player to opt-out of his contract under the provision would almost certainly be vigorously contested by the player’s team, either via arbitration or in court, a process that could potentially take years – and substantial legal fees – to resolve.

Not to mention the fact that if a player successfully uses this opt out, California teams will be hesitant to ever give long deals to players ever again. Thus, few players would go or stay there, draining three premier organizations of talent. It’s really not in anyone’s benefit to test this obscure law out.

But it’s fun to speculate about. Or fret about. Sorry, Ducks, Sharks, and Kings fans. Have a great seven years!