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Holiday Roster Freeze — the rules and implications for the Maple Leafs

The implication for you is that you have 13 days to Christmas.

NHL: DEC 13 Maple Leafs at Lightning
A Lightning ice staff takes the temperature of the ice in her Santa outfit during the third period between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning on December 13, 2018.
Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s that time of the year again. The Holiday Roster Freeze is almost here. I love the Holiday Roster Freeze because the CBA capitalizes it, which makes it seem like a serious thing, but it doesn’t really freeze anything, only covers half the holiday season and is more properly called a trade freeze, since no one’s roster is really frozen.

The most honoured tradition for this time of the year is cheap, er, budget NHL teams sending down players to the AHL so they can pay them less for a few days. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!

The roster freeze runs from midnight on December 19 to midnight on December 27. Teams may recall players as needed, but they may not trade players during that period. There are no waivers, and players may not be loaned. “Loaned” is the standard terminology used in the CBA for what most people call being sent to the AHL. The term loan is more accurate because players on NHL contracts playing in other leagues remain members of the NHL team in a real way. The NHL team is paying them, after all.

While it is likely technically possible to trade players on NHL contracts who play in the AHL over that period, it’s just not done. The only exception to the waivers moratorium is that a player placed on waivers on December 19, who is claimed, must report to his new team on December 20 even though the freeze is in place.

There are, however, other exceptions.

LTIR Exception

If a team has a player on LTIR and that player is healthy and ready to be activated, you aren’t stuck unable to sort out your cap situation. The Leafs currently on LTIR are Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly, likely to be joined by Nick Robertson soon. From the CBA:

However, during the roster freeze period a Club can make any Player transactions necessary for the Club to come into compliance with Article 50 as a result of a Player being removed from the Bona-Fide Long-Term Injury/Illness Exception.

Emergency Recall Exception

If a player is on Emergency Recall, and they were recalled to the NHL after December 11, they can still be loaned back to the AHL by midnight on December 23 as long as they don’t need waivers.

Emergency recall should not be confused with a roster emergency where a team plays shorthanded and then is allowed an emergency exception to the salary cap for a qualifying player. This is emergency recall:

(ii) Emergency conditions shall be established when the playing strength of the Loaning Club, by reason of incapacitating injury or illness or by League suspension to its Players is reduced below the level of two (2) goalkeepers, six (6) defensemen and twelve (12) forwards. Proof of the existence of the emergency conditions including the incapacity shall be furnished to the Commissioner of the League upon request made by him.

The simplest example is to imagine one of the goalies is sick and can’t play, Erik Källgren can then be recalled as an emergency recall. This matters all season for counting up days on the roster for various reasons including waiver exemption, but it’s largely ignored since it has no effect on the salary cap.

If the Leafs just want to add an extra skater before a road trip, that’s a regular recall.

Recalls of either sort are allowed during the actual freeze period, but only players brought up to the NHL on emergency recall can be returned to the AHL, and only up to December 23. That’s the freeziest part of the whole thing. Joey Anderson is the only player on emergency recall right now, and he was recalled before the 11th, so he either has to be sent down by the 19th or they’re keeping him through to the 27th. Any other player on the NHL roster who you would like to see sent down — not mentioning names — has to be loaned before midnight on the 19th.

What to Expect

The Leafs play two home games on December 20 and 22. They are then off entirely until December 27, where they play in St. Louis, followed by games in Arizona and Colorado before the New Year. That’s the kind of road trip you want extra players on, but the Leafs will have to leave for St. Louis with their partly frozen roster. They can recall players to go on the trip, but they can’t send anyone to the AHL to make room for a different choice in player. They’ll need to consider that when they decide how to handle the holiday break.

Airplanes exist, so if necessary, they can send someone back and recall a replacement after the St. Louis game when the freeze will be over.

There is usually a Boxing Day game at the SBA featuring the Marlies, and this year is no exception. The Leafs usually don’t hold onto extra players who are primarily AHLers and keep them out of that game unless they have to.

Other teams may have players being sent to WJC teams. They need to be loaned to their national teams by December 19.

Teams who are trying to maximize their cap space may arrange things to be able to send down as many players as possible over the Christmas NHL break (there are no NHL games on December 24-26) to bank space and to pay them less. But the Leafs have no cap space, and are using the LTIR pool to add to the roster, so they wouldn’t benefit.

There is a history of last minute trades on December 18, but the real trade market starts up in January when teams are more sure of their needs and their chances. Last year The Devils got an AHLer for future considerations on December 15. There was no Holiday Roster Freeze in the prior year since it didn’t begin until January. In 2019-2020, the Panthers and the Penguins swapped AHLers on December 17, and the big Taylor Hall trade to the Coyotes from New Jersey for three AHLers and two picks was the day prior on the 16th. Carolina and Detroit also swapped AHLers on the 12th.

That Hall deal was a big outlier, and it’s hard to imagine that will happen this year unless someone really decides Brock Boeser will solve all their problems and pays the price early.