The reserve list
Every team in the NHL has a Reserve List. It is defined in the CBA very simply:
"Reserve List" means the list of all Players to whom a Club has rights including all Unsigned Draft Choices, all Players signed to an SPC (whether or not currently playing in the NHL), and all Players who have signed an SPC but who have subsequently been returned to Juniors. A Club may have on its Reserve List, at any one time, not more than 90 Players, which shall include the following:
(a) Not more than 50 Players signed to an SPC and not less than 24 Players and 3 goalkeepers under an SPC. Age 18 and age 19 Players who were returned to Juniors, and who have not played 11 NHL Games in one season, shall be exempt from inclusion in the 50 Player limit.
Any Club violating this provision shall be liable to loss of draft choices as determined by the Commissioner.
(b) Unsigned Draft Choices.
The 50 player limit is of concern to teams, and prior to the trading deadline, having that maxed out is usually bad. It limits flexibility. After the trading deadline, it’s not as big a deal, but it can limit choices.
According to Cap Friendly, the Leafs are currently at 50 contracts.
Who can they sign?
Any junior player who meets the age exception. This covers draft picks and unsigned free agents. Jeremy Bracco or J.J. Piccinic can both be signed if the Leafs want to.
Who can’t they sign?
This is wrong! Unread this part, if you read it. Unlearn it, and take my apologies for the misinformation.
Forget everything that comes below. Mr Mathew Gooding, who counts better than me, pointed out that Cap Friendly is not showing MacEwen’s contract as part of the Canucks’ SPC count. So new signings don’t count until the contract takes effect. Which is not what the CBA says, but we’ll assume it just implies that in some way mere mortals can’t grasp. So thanks to him for the correction, and go follow him on Twitter.
The following is preserved for the record, but is not accurate. Do not pay any attention to it.
They could not have signed Zach MacEwen as they were rumoured to be about to do a few weeks ago. He is now a member of the Canucks organization. Even though he’s a junior, he’s 20 so he counts toward the 50 player limit.
The Leafs also cannot sign Adam Brooks or Jack Walker right now since they are both 20.
Until they have room, they cannot sign a European professional free agent. KHL contracts expire on April 30, so if the Leafs want Vladimir Tkachyov, they either need space for him, or an agreement with him to wait for it.
But they will have space?
Lots of it. But not until July 1. NHL contracts expire on June 30. So on July first Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Stephane Robidas, and Steve Oleksy all become UFAs. There are a few more as well, but you get the picture. Any unsigned RFAs who have not been given qualifying offers become UFAs and their contracts expire.
Before that date, the contract total will be reduced by at least one on June 21 for the expansion draft.
Can they make space?
Yes, absolutely, the old-fashioned way by trading someone. Trades within the season, but post deadline, are very rare, but not unheard of. They usually involve non-playoff teams. In this expansion draft year, however, you never know what a team is up to.
Trade: The #Sens have acquired defenceman Brandon Gormley from the New Jersey Devils for future considerations.— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) March 6, 2017
Trades after the season is over are obviously more common, and they almost certainly will start appearing as soon as teams finish their seasons because the Vegas Golden Knights can trade for players once they are done playing.
Trades related to the Expansion Draft do not need to be disclosed until after the draft is finalized, but the players involved move to the new team’s reserve list immediately.
This sets up a scenario where the Leafs could trade a player to Vegas after the season is over in return for Vegas agreeing to take Eric Fehr in the draft, sign someone to an SPC, and it would seem to those outside the loop—the Leafs, the Golden Knights, the league and the NHLPA—that they are over the limit.
There’s loopholes though, right?
There is one. Players bound for the Marlies, either as CHL or NCAA free agents, drafted junior players, or any other free agent professional can be signed to try-out contracts. ATOs and PTOs do not count towards the reserve list or 50 player limit and players signed to those deals can play in the AHL playoffs.
Update: To reiterate, any player not currently in the NHL can be signed now as long as the contract is for next year.
Is it a problem?
The worst that can happen is that someone with a very slim chance of ever making it to the NHL like Zach MacEwen gets away. That said, don’t be surprised if there is at least one contract off the books by May 1 just in case some KHL player is available.
The Leafs like flexibility, so don’t expect this status quo to last for long.