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Nick Robertson, the CHL Transfer Agreement and You

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It’s not the CBA this time, I swear.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs
Guess who’s back, back again... or is he?
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

In a normal season (are you tired of hearing that yet?) the Canadian Hockey League — aka the CHL, aka the OHL, QMJHL and WHL — start their seasons right about the same time as the NHL and AHL. All of this is timed out to allow for the transfer of players from the NHL to the AHL in time for their training camp and opening night and also to the CHL teams.

Because that timing has only seriously been challenged by NHL lockouts, the agreements that govern how players move in and out of the NHL are written with some unwritten assumptions. And now everything is a mess.

This is the timing:

NHL training camps are all underway by January 3, 2021. The AHL is set to begin on February 5, 2021, with no firm date for training camp yet, but at worst, players cut from the NHL to the minors will only be idle for two - three weeks. If a given NHL team’s AHL affiliate opts out of this season, that’s an easy problem to solve with a loan to another team.

In the interim, before the AHL season begins and continuing on through the NHL season, the Taxi Squad exists as a sort of faux AHL where up to six players can be available at a moment’s notice to be called up to the NHL. Those players have to clear waivers (if they aren’t exempt) to join the squad, but they are allowed to practice and travel with the NHL franchise. The Taxi Squad players, like everyone cut to the AHL, don’t count against the salary cap up to the buriable amount of $1.075 million, so the squad becomes the easy way to paper players up and down for cap purposes. But that opens up a question: Is the Taxi Squad the AHL or NHL for purposes of the NHL/CHL transfer agreement?

The Taxi Squad is treated like the NHL roster for many things governed by the CBA — insurance, housing rights, etc. It is treated like the AHL for many other things like compensations, pensions and waivers, so it isn’t immediately clear when it quacks like an AHL duck and when it doesn’t.

Transfer Agreement

The NHL/CHL Transfer Agreement is a document entered into between the two parties, and therefore the three junior leagues, that sets out the rules for drafted players playing junior hockey in Canada. It’s available on the internet, and the 2013 agreement was recently extended for this season, putting off its year of expiry.

In this agreement is the rule we all should know, but often forget: CHL players drafted by NHL teams who are 18 or 19 can play in the NHL or the CHL only. Except we also know that’s not an absolute rule. Morgan Rielly played AHL hockey after his junior season ended post-draft. Rasmus Sandin moved from the OHL to the AHL at 18. What’s up?

There’s two things at play here. First there is the somewhat difficult to nail down concept of where a player was drafted from. For Sandin, it was clear that he was loaned to the Soo Greyhounds from the Swedish team that held his rights. He wasn’t subject to the NHL/CHL rules because he’d been drafted from Sweden. Sometimes we’re left to guess the status of European draftees who are playing in the CHL, but CapFriendly does a good job of sorting this out.

For Rielly, the issue was that his WHL season was over, so he joined the Marlies in time to play 14 games and eight in the playoffs. This eventuality was foreseen, and the agreement reads like this:

A non-retained signed Player age 18 or 19 may also be recalled to his NHL Club or to the minor professional league team affiliated with his NHL Club when his Junior team is no longer in competition.

Non-retained simply means someone who did not play the full season in the NHL, and was loaned to the CHL. As of now there is no official word yet on how this will be interpreted when the situation actually is that some junior teams are not in competition at all yet, or are and have stopped.

The WHL and OHL have not begun play, and neither league has a schedule. They also haven’t cancelled their seasons. The QMJHL has played some games and is paused, but has a schedule published to begin on January 22. That might be hope springing eternal on their part, or it might come to pass.

Where that leaves the NHL players drafted out of those three leagues is growing more clear. They can be on the Taxi Squad now:

It seems certain that WHL and OHL players will be allowed to be assigned to the AHL in February as long as those leagues are not in competition yet. Several NHL teams are running their training camps in ways that make that the obvious plan or have said so outright. But what of the Taxi Squad if the junior leagues are playing?

There have been enough rumours and statements from Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon about this (he was, until very recently, a WHL team owner) to indicate that the NHL is still discussing this, but the wind is blowing in the direction of the Taxi Squad counting as the AHL in this instance.

If the OHL starts up, Nick Robertson has to be on the NHL roster or loaned to the Peterborough Petes. And it seems like the Taxi Squad will be out of bounds at that time. His handy waiver-exempt status would prevent him being used for cap-management purposes by being sent to the Taxi Squad on off days. That’s a small concern, and the Leafs will have other players to use for that purpose.

The number of games played required to count as a season for a player, and to prevent a “slide” of a contract for eligible ELCs has been prorated down from 10 to seven, so for a team running a short roster, and with a player who isn’t an automatic lock for the playing roster, use of the Taxi Squad provides a very helpful time buffer between now and when the AHL and/or OHL actually begin playing. The Leafs don’t really want to be forced to carry a forward on the playing roster who isn’t playing every game.

Robertson can simply solve this issue conclusively by making the NHL roster and making it laughable anyone ever thought of cutting him from the team, but that’s hardly a sure thing. Training Camp will tell us if he’s done that much, and then it’s a question of waiting out the OHL as they try to decide what to do.