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Understanding IR and LTIR for the capped-out Maple Leafs

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Every injury will soon be a cap problem as well as a medical problem.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Navigating injuries in the salary cap era is a tricky bit of business for a capped out team. The Leafs were in this state only the year before last, when they spent all of their cap space and used the LTIR pool most of the season. They easily maintained a full roster for that season, however, and weren’t troubled too much by the cap constraints. This season is going to be a lot different.

The Leafs will use LTIR all season long, and that will affect everything from the potential for deadline trades, the post-deadline access to recalled players, and the ability to keep above the minimum roster limits if injury strikes.

To understand the rules affecting replacing injured players, you need to throw away three things that are widely held beliefs. First: there’s no such thing as LTIR. That acronym doesn’t appear in the CBA. Second: the CBA is not full of loopholes teams use to pull tricks and cheat on the cap. Third: The CBA is not a set of capricious rules designed to trip up teams for no reason.

Roster Lists

There are several different official lists of players on NHL-contracts.

Reserve List

The Reserve List, aka the 90-man limit, is all players signed to an NHL contract, all drafted prospects and any other player the team has rights to.

Active Roster

The Active Roster is the 23-man maximum roster of players in the NHL whose cap hits count against the upper limit. The minimum allowed is 18 skaters and two goalies:

(b) Clubs are not permitted to Loan Players where the result of such Loan(s) would reduce the Club’s Active Roster below eighteen (18) skaters and two (2) goaltenders. However, Clubs will not be required to Recall Players to maintain the minimum eighteen (18) skaters and two (2) goaltenders on days which they do not play an NHL Game, provided that the deficiency below those thresholds is a result of an injury that has caused the removal of such disabled Player from the Active Roster.

(c) Except in case of emergency, there shall be no reduction of the required minimum Playing Rosters of the Clubs, below eighteen (18) skaters and two (2) goaltenders.

Article 16.4 (b) and (c) of the CBA

Playing Roster

The Playing Roster is that subsection of the active roster that is submitted before each game — the 18 skaters and two goalies in the game, in other words.

Injured Reserve

The Injured Reserve List is a subsection of the Reserve List:

16.11 Injured Reserve List/Injured Non-Roster.

(a) The Injured Reserve List is a category of the Reserve List. A Club may place a Player on the Injured Reserve List only if such Player is reasonably expected to be injured, ill or disabled and unable to perform his duties as a hockey Player for a minimum of seven (7) days from the onset of such injury, illness or disability. A Player who finishes an NHL Season on the Injured Reserve List and continues to be disabled and unable to perform his duties as a hockey Player by reason of the same injury at the time he reports to the Club’s Training Camp in the next League Year, will again be eligible to be placed on the Club’s Injured Reserve List. For any other Player who fails the Club’s initial physical examination in any League Year, or is injured, ill or disabled while not on the Club’s Active Roster, he shall not be eligible for, and may not be placed on, Injured Reserve, but instead shall be eligible to be, and may be designated as, Injured Non-Roster.

Article 16.11 (a) of the CBA

Teams are allowed to backdate the assignment of a player to Injured Reserve (IR) but only to the time of the illness or injury. A team cannot put a player on IR for a day or two or even five or six, unless they can legitimately backdate the assignment and prove it with medical records if required. The form filed by the team to place the player on IR contains a line to be completed by the league that shows the earliest date the player can be activated.

The main function of IR is to allow a team to call up a replacement player by making room on the active roster for him, it’s got nothing to do with the salary cap. Players on IR do not count towards the 23-man limit, but their cap hits do count.

Long-Term Injured Reserve

There’s no such thing.

Seriously, this slang acronym we all use, LTIR, is a construct made out of the familiar term IR and the term used in the CBA: Bona-Fide Long-Term Injury/Illness Exception to the Upper Limit. You can see why a shorter name was needed, but it’s led to some confusion.

The R stands for relief not reserve, as in relief from the cap. There is no separate subset of the reserve list for players “on” LTIR. It allows a team relief from the cap hits of injured players to be used for replacement healthy players.

All players on LTIR are actually on IR:

(b) A Player on whose behalf a Club has exercised the Bona Fide Long Term Injury/Illness Exception shall be placed on Injured Reserve for the period of such Exception, including any period the Player is on a Bona Fide Long Term Injury/Illness Exception Conditioning Loan.

Article 16.11 (b) of the CBA

The CBA details a set of procedures the league uses to determine if a team is trying to place a player who isn’t injured on IR, and since LTIR requires the player to be on IR, there’s no way to fake this. We saw examples of the NHL questioning the permanent assignment of players with vague conditions to LTIR in Joffrey Lupul and Marian Hossa.

But wait, it gets worse.

(d) Bona-Fide Long-Term Injury/Illness Exception to the Upper Limit. In the event that a Player on a Club becomes unfit to play (i.e., is injured, ill or disabled and unable to perform his duties as a hockey Player) such that the Club’s physician believes, in his or her opinion, that the Player, owing to either an injury or an illness, will be unfit to play for at least (i) twenty-four (24) calendar days and (ii) ten (10) NHL Regular Season games, and such Club desires to replace such Player, the Club may add an additional Player or Players to its Active Roster, and the replacement Player Salary and Bonuses of such additional Player(s) may increase the Club’s Averaged Club Salary to an amount up to and exceeding the Upper Limit, solely as, and to the extent and for the duration, set forth below. If, however, the League wishes to challenge the determination of a Club physician that a Player is unfit to play for purposes of the Bona-Fide Long-Term Injury/Illness Exception, the League and the NHLPA shall promptly confer and jointly select a neutral physician, who shall review the Club physician’s determination regarding the Player’s fitness to play.

Article 50.10 (d) note: bold text is underlined in the original

To put a player on LTIR, they have to be out for 24 days and 10 NHL games. You can’t do that every time someone has the sniffles. And for players assigned to LTIR on the opening day of the season, they can’t return to the roster until 24 days are up, or October 25.

Running a Short Roster

If the Leafs were planning on running a roster with three extra players all season, like they are right now or like they did two years ago, none of this would matter very much. But they won’t be doing that when Zach Hyman comes back from LTIR. Depending on the choices made about depth players, the Leafs will be playing with a roster of 20-21 once Hyman is back.

The main process used when a player is injured is simple emergency recall, which is detailed here:

In brief, this is the form of recall for a player in the minors to replace an injured player when the team drops below 12 forwards, six defenders and two goalies. Players on emergency recall count against the cap and the roster limit, and the point of all this is more about managing waiver exemption than the salary cap.

But what happens when a team just hasn’t got the cap space to replace an injured player, and can’t by rights use LTIR because the injured player just isn’t that injured?

The CBA doesn’t exist to punish players for the cap decisions of their teams. The CBA is in part a set of rules to ensure player safety, so there’s a remedy for this situation.

Roster Emergencies

Emergency Conditions are the conditions that force an Emergency Recall, which is when injury reduces the team below 12 forwards, six defenders and two goalies. You cannot create emergency conditions by loaning a player to the minors, it has to be real. If emergency conditions happen when you can’t get a replacement into the game, that’s a Roster Emergency. And you just play that one game with your healthy players.

It’s what happens in the next game that’s interesting:

(e) Roster Emergency Exception. In the event that (i) a Club has Payroll Room less than the sum of the Minimum Paragraph 1 NHL Salary and $100,000 (i.e., that Club’s Averaged Club Salary is greater than the Upper Limit minus the Minimum Paragraph 1 NHL Salary minus $100,000); (ii) a Player on such Club becomes unfit or unable to play (i.e., is injured, ill or disabled and unable to perform his duties as a hockey Player) or is suspended; (iii) such Club is unable to sign and/or Recall a Player with an Averaged Amount equal to the Minimum Paragraph 1 NHL Salary plus $100,000 under the Bona Fide Long-Term Injury/Illness Exception; (iv) as a result of such Player being unfit or unable to play or suspended and the Club having Payroll Room less than the sum of the Minimum Paragraph 1 NHL Salary and $100,000, the Club has fewer than eighteen (18) skaters and two (2) goalies (“18 and 2”) on its Playing Roster (pursuant to Section 16.4(c)); and (v) the Club played its previous game with fewer than 18 and 2 (a “Roster Emergency”), then such Club may, beginning with the second game and continuing with all subsequent games and without any charge to the Club’s Averaged Club Salary for the duration of such Roster Emergency, add to its Playing Roster the requisite number of “emergency replacement” Player(s), provided, however, that (i) each such Player may not have an Averaged Amount that is more than the then-applicable Minimum Paragraph 1 NHL Salary plus $100,000 (e.g., $625,000 in 2012-13); and (ii) each such Player may only remain on that Club’s Active Roster during the period of the “Roster Emergency.”

(i) The Paragraph 1 NHL Salary and Bonus of any Player added to the Playing Roster pursuant to this Section shall be included in the Players’ Share.

(ii) No Club shall be limited in the number of times it may invoke the Roster Emergency Exception in any League Year, provided that the Exception is at all times invoked in full compliance with this Section 50.10(e).

Article 50.10 (e) of the CBA

That’s a dense paragraph, isn’t it?

If the team has less cap space (or LTIR pool) than $800,000 (this year’s minimum salary plus $100,000) and they have had to play a game with less than 20 on the playing roster, they can recall a player who has an AAV of $800,000 or less for the next game, and that cap hit does not count. The team can keep that free replacement player until they have 20 healthy players again.

The CBA is not there to force teams to designate a player to LTIR that really isn’t 24-days of injured, and it isn’t there to make teams play with fewer than 20 players, so this is the way to reconcile when those rules conflict.

This solution seems to be designed as a stopgap against emergencies, not how you run the team all season, but at the same time, it’s not limited in the number of times you can use it. If a team is willing to do what the Leafs are doing, they aren’t breaking any rules or acting in some immoral or bad-faith way.

The best outcome for the Leafs this season is if this whole system of fallback options is never needed, just like the best way to run a roster is to never need to use LTIR space, but circumstances sometimes give you something less than ideal conditions.

From a distance, it appears that the Leafs have made all the contingency plans possible to make this work and they will likely run a 21-man roster most of the season, so they will need multiple injuries to have a Roster Emergency.

No one was expecting such a spectacular example of how this will play out to arrive so early in the season, but in a separate post, I’ll run down the specifics of the cap space, John Tavares’s not quite LTIR-level injury and the options for recall of players.