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Waivers begin today

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What? Really? Yup, time to start waiting for the list every day at noon.

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What, me worry?
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It’s waivers time again. Yes, it is weird that the waivers period is starting before training camp this season, but that’s hardly the weirdest thing about this year. We will have to learn to roll with it.

In a normal season, the waiver period starts 12 days before the end of training camp. The purpose of starting it so early in camp, when most waived players go through on the last two days, is to give teams who are sending players off to an AHL training camp in a distant city time to get the player there.

That’s what waivers are for. They are applied to all players, who are not exempt, when they are cut from the NHL to be sent to the minors. It isn’t a mark of questionable character or an attempt to get rid of a player. Teams are not hoping the bum gets taken in 99.9% of cases.

Waivers exist to prevent teams from stockpiling extra players capable of holding down NHL jobs. A team that claims a player on waivers has to keep them in the NHL. If they try to cut them to the AHL, the originating team can just grab them back and pop them on their AHL team. That’s why waiver claims are very rare. There’s usually a dozen or so a year, and the bulk of them are goalies.

That’s a normal year. This year, the new season rules state the waivers period is today, December 28, which is more than 12 days before opening day and before training camp even starts, even for the non-playoff teams. So what’s up?

Everyone starts out on the NHL roster

If you’re used to looking at rosters on many websites like Elite Prospects or CapFriendly, you need to remember something: they don’t reformat for offseason. They keep players listed on their AHL teams even when every NHL contracted player is on the NHL roster in training camp unless they’ve already been loaned to a European or junior league.

Training camp is limited to 36 skaters this season, so any NHL team that needs to (or wants to) disinvite minor league level players now, can do so even if they require waivers. Before camp starts, teams will have cut down their rosters to 36 plus all the goalies they desire.

Cut to where though? There is no AHL.

This is true, but we may have some clarity on their plans and scheduling later this week. There are also no Taxi Squads, not yet. Anyone placed on waivers now is likely a career AHLer on an NHL contract who is not coming to training camp. They won’t get claimed. There might be the occasional Dmytro Timashov type of player a team actually does want to put out there to be claimed, however, given the money crunch teams are experiencing.

Claiming

Not much has changed about claiming players. Priority is based on the regular season order of finish last year, so Detroit has dibs. That order changes to the current season from worst to best on February 1.

Teams have 24 hours to make a claim, and there is no provision at all to account for cross-border travel or isolation requirements. You claim, you might wait a long time to see the player. You still need SPC space, and once training camp is over, roster room and cap space, right away.

Players are put on waivers at noon every day, and that information is always made public.

Nearer to the start of the regular season we will see a big glut of players waived to go to the minors (or to wait for the minors to get to them) and to go to the Taxi Squads. That will happen rapidly over the course of one or two days.

Taxi Squads

The Taxi Squad is a minimum of four to a maximum of six healthy players who may travel with the team (they don’t have too) and may practice with the NHL team. In the normal course of events, non-rostered players are not allowed on NHL practice ice. Not even if they are on that team’s AHL squad.

This concept exists almost entirely to allow for on-site call-up players at all times in case a member of the regular NHL roster either tests positive for COVID-19 or has to isolate because of close contact. In the time between the start of the NHL season and the AHL training camps, the squad also serves as a place to keep the call-ups that might get used.

Contrary to early reports, there is no requirement to ever play any of them in an NHL game. They are also not trapped on the squad as some early speculation implied. They can be removed to the minors, and new players added. The transfer from the squad to the AHL does not involve waivers.

Any squad member testing positive for COVID-19 is removed from the maximum count, but other injuries or illness require the NHL to sign off on their removal from that count so another player could be added.

Players cannot be put on the squad before the last day of training camp, and any player who is not waiver exempt requires waivers to be loaned to the squad. The same rules apply to waiver claims here as if this was the AHL. Teams cannot claim a player on waivers and put them on their own squad. They would have to keep them on the NHL roster.

All players on the squad are paid their minors salary under the AHL rules for this season. Those rules prorate all minors salaries (one-way or two-way NHL-contracted amounts included) down to 116 days from the usual 186. The agreement with the NHLPA for the coming season expressly exempts NHL-rostered players from salary proration. But the NHL has 20% escrow and a 10% salary deferral, so while it’s not a major difference, the NHL roster is a raise for everyone on a squad, even players on one-way deals.

There is one exception to the travel being optional for squadies. All NHL teams must have three goalies either on the NHL 23-man roster or on the Taxi Squad this season. If the squad goalie is the third goalie, he must travel, and he functions effectively as the EBUG for his team in emergencies.

Waiver Exemption

There isn’t going to be any math here, trust me. Waiver exemption is calculated based on number of pro seasons and games played. The criteria for this is all prorated for this season. CapFriendly has their calculators up to date, and we’ll trust to them.

When a player is recalled after having cleared waivers — so from a Taxi Squad — they can stay on the NHL roster for nine games played and 29 days. One more day and/or game and they have to clear waivers again to be sent to the squad or the AHL. These numbers have not been prorated for this shorter season.

Salary Cap and Roster Size

Nothing has changed at all regarding roster size or the salary cap. The limit is $81.5 million for 23 men plus anyone on Injured Reserve. Taxi Squad players are considered to be in the minors for salary cap purposes, so if their cap hit is over $1.075 million, the excess counts against the cap.

Because of this, however, cap-strapped teams not using Long Term Injured Reserve Space can send a player to the squad (if there is enough squad roster space) on an off day to bank some cap space. A handy waiver-exempt player or two will get the up and down treatment on many teams. Teams without many waiver exempt players may make roster choices for the NHL depth by virtue of waiver status.

How Does This Affect the Leafs?

This season is going to be a bit tricky. The Leafs don’t have cap space for more than 21 men on the roster unless they trade a higher salary player or suffer a long-term injury. Short-term injuries will require some use of the emergency recall measures. The Leafs will want to create cap space by moving someone waiver exempt down to the squad and back again. Mikko Lehtonen is the most obvious candidate for that job, although Pierre Engvall removes the max amount possible from that day’s salary, since his cap hit is over the buriable limit discussed above. They will likely never have more than five players on the squad, and could carry only four to make all of that possible before the AHL starts up.

The trouble comes with a third goalie. If they want to risk Aaron Dell and Michael Hutchinson both on waivers to send to the minors/squad, they genuinely risk losing one or both. If they keep Dell on the NHL roster all season to use as their mandated third, their one extra NHLer will have to be on the squad, pass through waivers and would need to bump someone to get in a game. That all seems a little too complicated a plan for the Leafs, but some teams with more cap space might well do that.

One pass through waivers in the huge Taxi Squad waiving on the last day of camp might just get more goalies through than we expect however. I’d say I’d trust Leafs management on this one, but...

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We’ll find out how all of this is going to play out in very short order. But the arguing about who should sit around on the Taxi Squad can start now and run to January 12.