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The Dell Gambit: Why and at what cost?

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The Maple Leafs are holding their third goalie on the roster.

San Jose Sharks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

On Friday, we learned that the Maple Leafs have invented a whole new use for the Taxi Squad. For years, NHL teams have carved out some cash for themselves by sending players on two-way contracts to the AHL where they’re paid less. They do it over the Christmas break for that extra whiff of, “yes we’re cheaping out on your back, why do you ask?” With the dawn of the salary cap era, and the extreme cap crunch many teams are operating under this year, the expectation is that teams would “paper down” a player to bank cap space whenever they get the chance.

Instead of that old scheme, the Leafs are doing it to pay a player more. By swapping new free agent signings Alex Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen, the Leafs are changing up two identical two-way ELCs, and the effect on the salary cap is a net zero. It gives Lehtonen an NHL salary for one day and Barabanov the AHL version. While these two are on a job share plan, the Leafs are giving up the opportunity to bank space.

One day’s cap hit for either player can by banked by this formula, unique to this shorter season:

925,000 X 1/116 = 7,974

On deadline day, that space allows the team to add a player with an AAV of:

7,974 X 116/27 = 34,259

Obviously, one day won’t get you much, but the entire idea of banking space is to accumulate enough to matter. The Leafs are foregoing this usual practice to pay a player they don’t seem to have a very good reason for sending to the minors in the first place.

For a full work through of the above calculations and how they compare to a normal season, see this explainer at Puckpedia.

Aaron Dell and the fear of waivers

The paper shuffle to pay Mikko Lehtonen some extra money is the direct result of the Leafs keeping Aaron Dell on the roster. Having no one but a goalie as an extra makes injury problems sometimes tricky, but it is now affecting the cap space. The Leafs can’t paper down anyone until the 21st man is a skater due to minimum roster rules.

Unless we have very short memories, we all know why the Leafs are gun-shy about goalies on waivers. Making matters worse, Dell projects out to be somewhere around the 55th - 60th best goalie in the NHL. That’s not very good. But it’s better than virtually every other third goalie on an NHL roster, and makes him the top of the list for teams looking for a backup who is low-paid and not a prospect.

Players claimed on waivers cannot be moved to the minors. The Taxi Squad is the AHL, so anyone claiming Dell when he gets waived is looking for an NHL goalie. Which he has been every season to now for some time.

Both Anton Forsberg and Eric Comrie have been claimed so far, and that means both the teams they came from are suddenly missing a goalie. The teams that claimed them either need to keep them in the NHL or will waive them again: Forsberg is already on the wire a second time. And then there’s New Jersey who lost their veteran backup to retirement in training camp. On top of that, Edmonton has already used the emergency rules to call up their third off the squad to replace Mike Smith who was unexpectedly unavailable.

Is there a real risk of losing Dell?

Who needs a goalie?

Bold names mark the interesting ones.

North Division

Calgary has two solid NHL goalies in Jacob Markstrom and David Rittich, with Louis Domingue on the squad. Domingue was called up to sit as backup, but Rittich was missing for a family issue, not illness or injury. They’re set.

Edmonton should be set, with their tandem from last year of Smith and Mikko Koskinen with Stuart Skinner on the squad. They were the original home of Anton Forsberg, and will likely claim him back, which lets them put Forsberg on the squad and Skinner in the AHL. If Mike Smith is seriously injured, they might start rethinking that, however.

Montreal is set with the most expensive pair of NHL goalies and a crowd of AHLers. Charlie Lindgren is on the squad for now.

Ottawa has two AHL goalies plus Joey Daccord on the squad behind Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg, they’re set.

Vancouver has Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko with Michael DiPietro on the squad. They are set.

Winnipeg lost Comrie on waivers so they have Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit with their number four now on the squad in Mikhail Berdin. They only have one other AHL goalie, so depending on if they still think Comrie is a prospect they want to develop, they could wait for him to get waived again or just get another AHL goalie.

West Division

Anaheim is set with a former NHL backup, Anthony Stolarz through waivers and on the squad.

Arizona is doing exactly what the Leafs are doing with Adin Hill, a younger version of Dell, on the NHL roster. They have two other AHL goalies they wouldn’t want to call up.

Colorado has their third on the squad behind the tandem from last season. They’re set.

Los Angeles has goalies behind Jon Quick, one in the NHL, one on the squad, one in the AHL. It all looks a little weak until you find Cal Petersen as non-roster because of COVID protocols. They likely aren’t interested in adding anyone above the AHL level.

Minnesota got Andrew Hammond as a third and through waivers, so they’re all set with Cam Talbot and prospect Kaapo Kahkonen in the NHL.

San Jose has a goalie stationed in each place, including two in the AHL. Are any of them good? They seem to think so.

St. Louis brought Ville Husso up to be Jordan Binnington’s backup, but things look a little hazy below that. They have a goalie on the squad, but they’re another team that looks more like they’ll want an AHLer than Dell (or Hill).

Vegas would happily trade you Marc-Andre Fleury, and if you want him, they might be in the market for a number two or three. This seems unlikely to happen any time soon, though.

Central Division

Carolina claimed Forsberg before they got Alex Nedeljkovic through waivers. Now they’ve waived him again. An interesting and new technique to solve the waiver fear problem. They’re set.

Chicago doesn’t want Dell, he’d be too good.

Columbus is totally set with you know who and the other guy as well as a third that they’re happy with.

Dallas, who are delayed from starting, are an interesting case given their mass of COVID infections. Ben Bishop is on LTIR with an injury and won’t play for months. So Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger are it in the NHL with two more extras on the squad. They have so many problems, this goalie mess is the least of them, but that’s a very, very weak list. Not sure Dell or Hill helps them much.

Detroit are overflowing with two decent backups as their main tandem, and two good squadies for now, one of whom can go to the AHL. They don’t care about any of this.

Florida has Bobrovsky on non-roster for now, but they open against Dallas, so they are also delayed. Below him they have two backups, one of whom is waivers exempt, so they don’t seem to be in the market at the Dell level.

Nashville is all set with last year’s tandem, new acquisition Connor Ingram and Kasimir Kaskisuo in the AHL.

Tampa is going with Curtis McElhinney again, and they have former Leafs prospect Chris Gibson on the squad.

East Division

Boston is said to be keeping Tuukka Rask and Jaro Halak apart to make sure they never both get sick. They also have Dan Vladar on the squad, and they don’t care about Dell.

Buffalo is using their same unsuccessful tandem from last year and also has a squad goalie and a very interesting prospect in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen who is playing in Finland. They seem set well enough, though.

New Jersey is coming for your goalies!!! They have Mackenzie Blackwood, who is their starter, and they have Scott Wedgewood, who they say they like fine as a backup. They grabbed Eric Comrie, and he’s sitting in quarantine limbo while someone named Gilles Senn is on the squad. They can’t put Comrie on the squad, so either they want to use him in place of Wedgewood, or he was an insurance claim from waivers. They need an AHLer first, and then they need to answer the question of if they want Dell or Hill or not. Wedgewood has never cleared waivers, so if they claim another goalie they’d have four on the NHL roster to sort out. And yet, the risk they decide they want someone better than either Wedgewood or Comrie is very high. They are one big reason why Armstrong and Dubas are playing goalie chicken here.

New York Islanders look set with their starter, their prospect and a squadie. They also just signed Cory Schneider as insurance.

New York Rangers are also set with their tandem of young guys and Keith Kinkaid on the squad.

Philadelphia have their hot young starter Carter Hart, their wise old veteran Brian Elliott and Alex Lyon on the squad. They’re set.

Pittsburgh have their “not Matt Murray” tandem and a squadie. They don’t care about this either.

Washington has what looks to me like an obvious need to improve at backup. They have Vitek Vanacek there and the 39-year-old Craig Anderson, as well as Pheonix Coplay and Zach Fucale on the squad. If Ilya Samsonov is to ever get a game off, they need to do something. But having three goalies on your Taxi Squad sort of screams out “not satisfied with any”.

And that’s the situation. That’s why both the Leafs and Arizona are hesitating. The Dell Gambit/Dilemma may go on for some time.