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Will a Maple Leafs return to play include Nick Robertson?

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What about that other junior-aged player who is under contract?

2019 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

As soon as the OHL season was cancelled and the playoff run of the Peterborough Petes was stopped in it’s tracks, speculation began about the future of Nick Robertson. Could he play for the Maple Leafs if they return to finish the 2019-2020 season?

There’s no question that Robertson will play a big role on the Leafs in next season’s training camp, whenever that is, but what about now? A Toronto Sun columnist opined recently that Robertson would be on the roster in a return to play, and that the rosters would be expanded. Naturally, that needs to be fact-checked.

In case of pandemic, pull this lever

The NHL does not even have so much as an actual schedule for a return to play because they can’t be sure it’s even possible, but they’ve been discussing how they would do it for weeks with the NHLPA. Those two bodies will have to agree on multiple revisions to the CBA to make this work. No one envisioned a concept of the NHL playing beyond June 30, or playing when all other leagues were shuttered when they wrote this contract.

The actual language of the Standard Player Contract governs the length of the contract in “League Years.” The League Year is virtually always July 1 through June 30th, but the league and the NHLPA can agree on another “one-year period.” The move they’re making here is actually to extend the existing league year beyond 12 months, though; I think there’s a fair case that’s not contained within the language of the CBA as written. - Fulemin’s recent Mailbag

Think back to the World Cup of Hockey, the league and the union agreed to several measures to make that possible, and one of them — the bye week — became permanent, but you won’t find a word about it in the CBA. Those rules, like a lot of things decided since 2013 are in other documents in a drawer somewhere. By the time this summer is over and next season is in the planning stages, we’re all going to be disabused of the notion that the CBA is sacrosanct and inviolable like the laws of physics. New side deals are always possible.

But is Robertson even allowed on the Leafs under the current rules? Doesn’t the OHL own him until he’s 20? It turns out the answer might be that having him on the roster isn’t merely allowed, it’s required.

Prying the hot property out of junior hockey

In Article I of the CBA, the Active Roster is determined as:

Commencing on the day prior to the start of the Regular Season, and concluding with each respective Club’s last NHL Game in a League Year, Active Roster shall include all Players on a Club’s Reserve List who are signed to an approved and registered SPC, subject to the provisions of Article 11, and who are not on the Injured Reserve List, Injured Non-Roster, designated Non-Roster, or Loaned. A Player who is on a Conditioning Loan is included on a Club’s Active Roster. During Training Camp, a Player shall be deemed to be on the Club’s Active Roster only if he had been on the Club’s Active Roster after the Trade Deadline in the preceding season on other than an emergency recall basis.

The reserve list is the full 90-man list of players the team has rights to, so all draft picks and signed free agents, but the active roster is limited to just players who have signed an SPC for the year in question. Article 11 contains the rules for SPCs, so that part just means the SPC has to be legal.

This means that any player on an NHL contact for the 2019-2020 season who is not injured or loaned to another team is going to be on the team’s roster when play resumes. The unforeseen circumstances of the NHL playing after most other leagues have ended their seasons means there’s almost no place for players to be loaned to to get them off the active roster, and they will be there unless the NHL and the NHLPA decide the loan in effect before the hiatus is still in effect.

This doesn’t just apply to Robertson, but to Semyon Der-Arguchintsev as well. Players like Filip Kral, Kristians Rubins and Mikhail Abramov were all signed beginning 2020-2021 so they aren’t included.

Can Robertson and Der-Arguchintsev play in the NHL? Is this really allowed?

The CBA, in Article 8.9 is written in a way that starts out saying no one can play in the NHL unless they...

(a) had been claimed in the last Entry Draft, or was ineligible for claim under Section

8.4; or

(b) had been eligible for claim in the last Entry Draft, but was unclaimed, and: ...

The rules in section (b) go on at length, but they don’t apply to our two juniors under contract right now. Only section (a) does. They were both either claimed (Robertson) or ineligible (Der-Arguchintsev) because they had already been drafted. So, yes, they meet the base standard.

There are special rules for 18- and 19-year old players in Article 8:

8.7 Age 18 and 19 Players.

(a) During the first two seasons next succeeding the draft of an age 18 Player, the Club he signs an SPC with must first offer him to the club from which he was claimed before it may Loan him.

(b) During the first season next succeeding the draft of an age 19 Player or a Player who reaches his 19th birthday between September 16 and December 31, inclusive, of the year of the Entry Draft, the Club he signs an SPC with must first offer him to the club from which he was claimed before it may Loan him.

(c) During the seasons set forth in (a) and (b) above, the age 18 and age 19 Player, respectively, may be Loaned to the minor league team affiliate of his Club when his Junior team is no longer in competition and provided he has been listed on the Club’s minor league eligibility list.

Section (a) and (b) require teams to loan players to their junior team first before they send them off anywhere else. This is the “can’t play in the AHL until you’re 20” rule, because their junior team is not going to agree to them going elsewhere. Section (c) is the interesting one.

To get junior players off the active roster in a summer season for the NHL, they could be loaned to the AHL, the only league (at this time) that’s still not formally shut down. But if this rule about eligibility lists is left unchanged, they’d have had to be on it, and we don’t know right now if they are.

Getting the extras off the team

The AHL sitting in limbo along with the NHL is interesting because no one believes they will return to play, and in fact, there is concern they might not start next season anywhere near on time. Given that, it’s possible the league is being kept “open” so there is someplace to loan players to on paper when the NHL starts up again, because this issue doesn’t just affect the handful of junior or European players on SPCs on each team, it affects all the NHL-contracted players who are in the AHL or ECHL too.

On the Leafs, there are 48 players who could potentially be on that active roster if the NHL returns this summer. The actual figure depends on who is still injured and who isn’t. Ian Scott could be one of them, and so likely will Andreas Johnsson.

Teams will have to trim their active roster to whatever the new agreed-upon number is, possibly by just recognizing existing loans to the AHL as still in force. The new roster size won’t be 23. Some form of buffer of extra players will have to be created, and the excess players will be loaned off to oblivion to get the active roster to within that limit. But at the start of this. Robertson and Der-Arguchintsev will likely still be on the active roster. Except, like most parts of the CBA, there’s a back door you can sneak out of.

Back up in the definition of active roster, there’s this exception for “designated Non-Roster”. That’s the door with the exit sign over it.

Article 16 sets out the rules for who can be Non-Roster:

16.12 Non-Roster Player.

(a) Upon approval of the Commissioner, a Player who is unavailable to play due to reasons other than injury, illness or disability (e.g., birth of a child, attending a funeral) will be designated a Non-Roster Player, and during such period of his designation as such he will not count against the Club’s Active Roster limit and his Club may replace such Player, provided, however, that the Non-Roster Player’s Player Salary and Bonuses and his replacement’s Player Salary and Bonuses are each included in calculating a Club’s Actual Club Salary and Averaged Club Salary, and the Players’ Share, for purposes of Article 50.

The rest of this section sets out the rules for designating a player Non-Roster when he comes off of Injured Reserve or is acquired in a trade, and it involves conforming to the 23-man limit which is not now in effect, so that’s moot. You will see this all the time during the regular season for players who are on the team, but not actually in the same location as the team at that time because of trades or road trips.

What seems to apply to this situation right now is the delightfully vague “reasons other than injury, illness of disability”. If a player is in some jurisdiction where he cannot travel from to where the team is training or playing, that’s a reason other than injury. And we might see this designation used to excuse players teams can’t recall to active duty or don’t really want to.

There’s also the possibility that the various parties decide to declare the return to play something outside the “League Year” and therefore not subject to any of these rules. They might just make up a whole new set from scratch — a mini-CBA while they’re also busy negotiating the next big CBA.

Just because you can do something...

As for Robertson and Der-Arguchintsev, the Leafs likely won’t be forced by the old rules or any new ones to give them playing roster spots. They likely won’t be forced to put them on the bigger active roster, but the Leafs may want them on this still-to-be-defined squad of players who are not loaned off to the imaginary AHL, but are available to function as call-ups. That decision is based on player development needs, travel considerations, and how many regular season games are actually going to be played.

If the NHL teams move straight to the playoffs, finding a spot for a hot junior player who scored a lot of goals might be more difficult than if the full run of regular season games goes first. Even if there is a mini-training camp and some regular season games of little significance (in case you’ve forgotten, the Leafs were reasonably close to clinching third place in the Atlantic) would Robertson play much? Is there a point to him showing off his suit game in an empty press box, or would the compressed schedule open the door to some real playing time?

That’s up to Sheldon Keefe. It is possible, though, and it would be fun.