I am trying to understand free agency rules in NHL, how the last two lockouts changed them, and how players may decide to behave with respect to them.
My understanding is that after the 2004-5 lockout, unrestricted free agents became those players how are either older than 27 or have at least 7 seasons of tenure in NHL. The shift to the new rules was gradual: before season 2004-5, it was 31 years of age without tenure requirements (is this correct?); then--after the lockout, in 2005-6 it became 29 years of age or with 7 seasons tenure; finally, in 2006-7 it became 27 or with 7 seasons of tenure.
After the 2004-5 lockout, younger players with less than 7 seasons of tenure remained restricted free agents at the end of the contract, if the current team offered them a qualifying contract (i.e. a contract of at least 1 season, with a salary that is equivalent to at least 100-110% of the last salary). Differently, without the offer of a qualifying contract from the current team, these players become unrestricted free agents.
The 2012-2013 lockout did not lead to any change in this free agency rules.
My question is based on the assumption that the above illustration is correct (if it is wrong, please, tell me what detail is wrong) and is grounded on a story telling that differs from the usual one--see below.
Many hockey fan claim that long contracts impact players performance. After a player signs a multi-year contract, in the first season he "shrinks" (i.e. he does not play at his best), then he plays a bit better in the following seasons, and finally (in the last season of the contract) he plays as well as he could to convince the team owner (or the owner of another team) that he deserves a new contract.
I think that this story is incomplete because it does not differentiate between players who qualify as restricted free agents and those who qualify as unrestricted free agents. Let's consider a young good and nontenured player, in the last season of his contract. Since he is good, he expects the team owner to offer him a contract renewal that would be considered as a qualifying offer; therefore, he does not expect to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the contract. However, during the last season (or even a bit earlier), a different team owner comes forth and holds private talks with this player; this new team is better than his current team and wants to offer to him a better contract (much more money).
The question is: how likely is that this player intentionally plays bad during his last season in order to convince his current team owner to not give him a qualifying offer? Without qualifying offer, he becomes unrestricted free agent and can freely join the better team which offers him more money. What do you think? Is it likely to happen? Are there some rumors about this behavior?