When the Leafs claimed Frank Corrado on waivers on October 6 from the Vancouver Canucks, there was a consensus about the move: the Leafs acquired a young player to bolster their roster depth, and they gave up nothing to do it. Good move.
The expectation, however, was that Corrado would play semi-regularly, or at all. One quarter into the season, and Frank Corrado has yet to play a single game for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The reason? In part a disconnect between coaching and management. While the front office saw a free wallet, coach Mike Babcock may well view Corrado as a piece unable to fit into a crowded roster. Babcock would likely prefer to use Corrado, a right-handed shot, on the right side. There is no chance that top four blueliners Dion Phaneuf and Morgan Rielly would sit to make room for Corrado, and Babcock seems attached to Roman Polak on the third pair. With four left-shot blueliners occupying the left side of the defensive depth chart, there's also no opportunity for Corrado to play on his off-side.
Barring injury, it appears that Corrado will remain a staple of the press box so long as he is on the NHL roster.
As James Mirtle notes, this predicament is not limited to Corrado or the Leafs. Jared Tinordi of the Montreal Canadiens has yet to play a single game. Victor Bartley of the Nashville Predators has played only one game this season. Dylan McIlrath? Four games for the New York Rangers. Tomas Jurco? Four games with the Detroit Red Wings. Jamie Oleksiak? Just five games with the Dallas Stars.
Most of these players are young- Bartley is the oldest at 27- but remain in the press box. They don't see much, if any, game action with the team. But they do remain on the NHL roster. The 2015-16 season has seen a considerably large cohort of what I call "milk carton" players: those who have seen such limited game action at any level, that I'd be inclined to slap their faces on the side of a milk carton if the media attending practices didn't tell us that these players were still alive and skating.
Why Don't Milk Cartons Ride The Bus?
So, if the milk carton players are seeing such limited game time, would it not make logical sense to send them to the minors? After all, the NHL club seems to have no use for them, so the logic would then follow that it would be best for everyone involved to demote these players to the AHL.
That would be true if, as Mirtle notes, it weren't for waivers. Most of you understand waivers, but for those reading who may not, a primer: before sending a player to the AHL, teams have until 12:00 p.m. ET the following day to file a claim to acquire that player. If a player is claimed, he joins that team's NHL roster rather than going to the AHL.
Under the current CBA, a player is initially waiver-exempt (i.e. the team can demote him to the AHL without the risk that another team may claim him) to a certain threshold of years under contract and/or NHL games played at a certain age. You can see a table outlining this threshold here. The years under the contract, however, is the dominant threshold; once a player has hit that mark, he is waiver-eligible regardless of games played. Given that many players sign an ELC at a young age, becoming waiver-eligible by 22-23 years old is not extraordinary.
As an example, we know Corrado is waiver-eligible because that's how the Leafs got him. Despite having only played 28 NHL games at 22, he signed his first NHL contract with the Canucks in 2012, thus reaching the 3-year threshold for players his age.
The problem simply is in a cap world, teams just don't want to risk losing a young asset for nothing. While teams may not have a regular spot for these players, injuries do happen, and they may want to keep them around to fill holes as needed.
Specifically with the Leafs and Corrado, the risk of losing the asset is real. The Canucks never wanted to lose Corrado, and it's more than likely they'd reclaim him if the Leafs were expose him to the waiver wire. Even if they didn't, there are plenty of teams at the bottom of the standings that could use the help on their blueline.
There is only one way these players can go to the AHL without waivers: a conditioning loan. Per Paragraph 13.8 of the CBA, a team is allowed to loan a player directly to their AHL affiliate for the purpose of a conditioning stint. Corrado spent seven games with the Toronto Marlies on such a stint, while Jurco is currently doing the same for Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.
The problem: Paragraph 13.8 stipulates the loan must end after fourteen days. And a player is only entitled to one loan per season. And the NHL can veto loans if they feel it is done to circumvent the rules, as they did in 2013 when the Sabres attempted to loan Mikhail Grigorenko to Rochester to circumvent the NHL-CHL transfer agreement. In fact, you could very well argue the Leafs are lucky the NHL did not veto Corrado's conditioning loan given that it was likely intended to give him some game action he otherwise would not have seen.
This has put several young players in a purgatory of sorts. They're not able to earn a regular roster spot on their team, but are too valuable of an asset for the team to risk losing to waivers. The player could theoretically demand a trade, but how does a team trade someone for fair value who they aren't even playing?
The end result- spending their time mired in the pressbox, seeing next to no game action- is about the worst possible thing for players' development. If you're the NHLPA, this should be a concern: a number of players that you represent aren't getting any opportunity to play.
So, how do you fix it?
There are a few potential options you could look at here, and I'll outline the advantages and disadvantages of each.
1) In-Season Quota for Waiver Eligibility
How it works: the NHL installs a percentage quota for games played in-season to determine waiver eligibility. If a player has appeared in less than, let's say, 40% of the games his team has played, he would be exempted from waivers. The Leafs, for example, have played 21 games so far this year. Using this quota, anyone with less than 8 GP would currently be exempted (like Corrado, and his, y'know, zero games).
Advantages: it solves the basic problem of players perpetually sitting out at the NHL level. If teams can't commit to giving a player regular playing time, they have the option of sending them to the AHL without risk of waivers.
Disadvantages: it may not actually solve the problem entirely, but create it in other circumstances. Let's say you have a player you want to send to the AHL but is above the 40% threshold. For argument's sake, he's played in 8 of your team's 15 games. You could risk losing that player on waivers, or you could sit him for seven games so that he falls under the exemption. Most teams would choose the latter; the problem in this case is that you're still sitting a player for almost two full weeks just to exploit the loophole. That goes against the spirit of what this rule change would be trying to achieve, doesn't it?
Also, no two game absences are alike. Does a strict GP quota include injury, or just healthy scratches? Is there an age cutoff? The implications beyond solving a narrow problem may be too far-reaching.
2) Minimum GP Quota For Active Roster Players
How it works: The NHL institutes a rule stipulating that a player must play in at least half of the games for which they are active. That wording is important, as it discounts injury. Whatever number of games a player is ready and able to play, he must play in at least 50% of them. If a player is available to you all 82 games, he must play in 41.
Advantages: A rule like this would force coaches to give their healthy scratches some game time. Rather than languish in the press box, players on the NHL roster would be required to get game action.
Disadvantages: This is easy to exploit. Like really, really easy. Teams could place a player on IR or suggest he left the team for vague "personal matters" in order to reduce the quota. After all, they're not "active" for the game, so why should it count? In extreme circumstances, you may see a player on LTIR with a mystery injury, a la Stephane Robidas.
Much like the first proposal, this is a great idea to get the specific group of players we're looking at some playing time, but the implication is that it would create a rule for the remaining 99% of the league that teams would be able to- and definitely try to- circumvent. What's the point of a rule we know teams are going to try and bend?
3) Under-25 Waiver Compensation
How it works: Note that almost all of the players mentioned above, like Corrado, are under the age of 25 but still waiver-eligible. Rather than affect waiver eligibility, why not set up a compensation mechanism? If a player under 25 is put on waivers, a team has to provide compensation- either financial, or a draft pick/prospect- to that team on a sliding scale based on that player's games played/production in the NHL.
Advantages: You've dealt with the obvious problem recurring in front offices: the fear of losing a player for nothing. At least if you risk exposing a young asset to waivers, you'll get something in return if another team claims him.
Disadvantages: Chances are whatever compensation would be fair for a waiver claim wouldn't be enough to deter teams. If it were financial compensation, richer teams like the Leafs certainly wouldn't balk at throwing what amounts to chump change at another franchise to get their player. If it's a draft pick, it would be doubtful it'd be something higher than, say, a 4th rounder. Any sane team would give up a lottery ticket for a player not likely to ever play an NHL game for a player that's already cracked the NHL.
You could make the compensation steeper, but the problem is that this would entirely defeat the purpose of waivers. The concept of waivers is to provide bubble players an opportunity to get an NHL roster spot on another team before being sent to the AHL. Does anyone think that's going to happen if the asking price is a high pick, prospect, or roster player? The end result is that these players would practically lose their chance to catch on with another NHL team.
4) Long-Term Conditioning Loan (LTCL)
How it works: The best tool at the disposal of teams for these players has been the conditioning loan, as it allows them to play in the AHL for two weeks without exposure to waivers. The problem is that once those two weeks are up, the player just returns to the pressbox. He can't be loaned again. That's it.
So, why not expand it?
Let's say that in the event a player has not played an NHL game in fourteen days, the team can loan him to their AHL affiliate, without waivers, for a 30-day period. Let's also extend the number of times you can use this tool: every player will be entitled to four LTCLs per season if they meet the criteria.
Advantages: This idea takes the best existing method of getting "milk carton" players some playing time, and expands it. Unlike the other proposals, it wouldn't have far-reaching implications beyond the players we're trying to help.
And it would work. Think of it in terms of Frank Corrado. The season started on October 7. Under the proposed rule, he would be allowed to go to the Marlies on October 21, with his LTCL ending on November 19. Had this option been available, Corrado could have played 12 games with the Marlies, five more than he played on his conditioning loan. And he'd be available to play more.
Still no room on the roster for him? You could send him for a second LTCL as early as December 3. He would get another 13 games with the Marlies before being returned to the Leafs on January 2.
So, using this example, the Leafs could've used the LTCL to get Corrado 25 games by New Year's Day, compared to the just 7 he got under a regular conditioning stint. Solves the problem, no?
Disadvantages: A team would still only get four of these a season, so there still would be some logistics as to when to play the LCTL card. In the interim, a player would still spend two weeks in the NHL, sitting in the pressbox. It's *better* than the current system, but the problem persists, if only for two-week increments.
Teams could also use it to essentially yo-yo a bubble player to the AHL for almost an entire season without waivers. That's well and good if a player wants to play anywhere, but what if he wants an NHL spot? That's the point of waivers, remember.
There's also a logistical issue of the 23-man roster. How do you count a player on LTCL? If he counts against the roster, that could be problematic for injuries, particularly if the NHL or AHL club is on a long road trip. If he doesn't, then how is he replaced? Are you calling up a young player from the Marlies just to take his seat in the pressbox for a month? It's shuffling deck chairs, to an extent.
If I had to choose, I think the LTCL would be the best option. I would also add two caveats:
- A roster player who has not played a game in 14 days in which he is active must either play in that team's next game, or be put on LTCL.
- A player who has played no more than 3 games in 28 days in which he is active must be put on LTCL.
Which proposal would you think is best? Answer in the polls.