January is pretty much an unrelenting slog as far as everything goes. The weather is terrible, you remember that there’s too many hockey games in the regular season, and unless you really like talking about who is in the All-Star Game, the discussion will be about trades.
The trade deadline is two months away, so that’s a lot of time to fill speculating about who the Leafs are going to add — and subtract since they have 49 SPCs that count against the 50-player limit right now.
It’s begun already with a mention on the 32 Thoughts podcast from December 30 that Tyler Ennis was playing in the Spengler Cup. After 13 straight years in the NHL out of junior hockey, with only 69 AHL games played, he couldn’t find an NHL contract this season. He went to Switzerland and has been playing in Bern where he has 17 points in 18 games, mostly assists. Ennis hit 20 goals with Buffalo twice — largely driven by ice time and power play time on terrible rosters. In his post-Buffalo career, where he became more of a depth player, he had good seasons with Toronto and Ottawa when he was just turning 30. He’s 33 now, and that makes it much harder to find work, but he’s available, we’re told.
I was moved to look up Tyler Bozak the first time the Leafs played the Blues. He had a frankly terrible season last year in St. Louis, and was dreadful on faceoffs — his claim to late-career utility. The explanation is an injury, probably a back injury, that kept him from even trying to get signed last summer. He has not formerly retired, and if he’s at all healthy and can deliver d-zone faceoff wins, some team will be interested.
The tale of the two Tylers is not really one of “who should the Leafs add at the deadline”, it’s about entry waivers. Ennis isn’t the only player out there playing in Europe who might get some NHL attention as desperate teams look for cheap insurance depth for the end-of-season run. But Ennis requires entry waivers and Bozak doesn’t, so here’s the rule:
13.23 In the event a professional or former professional Player plays in a league outside North America after the start of the NHL Regular Season, other than on Loan from his Club, he may thereafter play in the NHL during that Playing Season (including Playoffs) only if he has first either cleared or been obtained via Waivers. For the balance of the Playing Season, any such Player who has been obtained via Waivers may be Traded or Loaned only after again clearing Waivers or through Waiver claim. This section shall not apply to a Player on the Reserve List or Restricted Free Agent List of an NHL Club with whom the Player is signing an NHL SPC or is party to an existing SPC with such NHL Club.
To understand how this works, you basically need to know what the reserve list is. It’s the list of players a team has rights to via draft or by trading for rights. For players formerly in the NHL, if they leave for Europe as an RFA, their rights are still “owned” by the team they played for. If they leave as a UFA, they are simply a free agent. The Leafs have only drafted players on their reserve list, including Matthew Knies. If he were to sign with the Leafs this spring for this season — so a contract that allows him to play in the NHL — he would not require any waivers.
Last season, everyone learned about entry waivers as if for the first time when the Leafs signed a desperation, any-port-in-a-storm goalie in Harri Säteri. He was promptly claimed on waivers by Arizona and appeared in six games. He went to the Swiss league this year because he’s not an NHL-calibre goalie.
But the upset was massive! And for a change, not just from Leafs fans. Finnish hockey fans decided that poor Harri’s personal rights were being violated by the cruel waivers process, and the NHL should just not have these waivers. Waivers are bad, and they don’t serve any purpose, and it’s not fair to Europeans.
The answer to all of that is very simple and just makes everyone more angry, as these things do. Entry waivers are a remnant of the older, even more comprehensive waiver system where most players faced entry waivers to join the NHL. This was changed in more recent CBAs because some of it was counterproductive. The purpose of all waivers is to maximize the NHL-calibre players in the NHL, and to keep teams from filling up the AHL with players capable of playing NHL hockey as insurance.
There’s some slightly outmoded thinking behind this — after all, the current CBA is largely built on a document from the early 2000s or even the one from the 1995. Back then, the idea that younger players who are waiver exempt are where your stockpiled talent sits would have baffled most hockey minds. But the point stands. If a team like the Leafs could, they would fill the Marlies with NHL-calibre depth as insurance for the playoffs, so waivers exist to say, essentially that the player you don’t have room for or a role for on your NHL team gets to play on another team if they want him. No one cries tears over Nicolas Aubé-Kubel.
But entry waivers aren’t fair! If you sign for a team, you’ve picked that team, and you should play for that team! Or so went the argument against entry waivers. But as we’ve clearly seen, if you don’t spell out precisely what you can and can’t do in the CBA, teams will look for clever schemes to gain any advantage, even the illusory advantage of a few hours difference on flight times.
If entry waivers didn’t exist, it would be impossible to stop teams from having handshake deals with players to spend six months in Europe and only sign at the deadline when cap space has accrued and the roster limit is gone. Entry waivers are there to stop the stockpiling of players who should be in the NHL, or would have just gone on waivers in October if they’d been there from day one.
As we saw with Säteri, he could drive a tank — the Coyotes tanks are AI enabled and don’t really require much input from the driver — but that was it. The Säteri story is also one of a player who hadn’t chosen a team and was cruelly denied. He’d, as a matter of conscience, walked away from a KHL team, and he was looking for a new job very unexpectedly. The Leafs knew they were gambling, and he was taking one last run at an NHL career.
There are currently 48 Canadians, 13 Americans and a small handfull of Europeans in the KHL this year, meaning dozens of players who used to play there are bulging out other leagues, mainly the Swiss league, increasing the competition for ice time. There are a few players more notable than Ennis in Switzerland who might want an NHL job. But all of these players would have to sign by March 3 or they can’t play in the playoffs. To do that, they either need an out-clause in their European contract or the ability to buy it out. Contracts, not waivers are why in-season signings are so rare.
KHL teams have occasionally allowed players on non-playoff teams to exit while the contract is still in force — they run to April 30, but the KHL regular season ends in late February. These days, doing favours for Russian players that would allow them to leave seems unlikely, and the North American players there are usually avoiding an AHL career and salary, and their face in the mirror, by playing in Russia, so aren’t who NHL teams are looking for.
The single most impressive European player this season has to be Teemu Hartikainen, who is now 32, but who had 52 uninspiring NHL games in his youth. Finding NHL-ready gold in this stream requires a lot of sifting and a lot of luck. Speculation usually ignores all these realities.
There is a grass is greener effect going on here too. Chances are, if the Leafs want a generic depth insurance player, Joey Anderson, Alex Steeves of Semyon Der Arguchintsev can fit the bill. If not them, some other team likely has someone on their AHL team who does. The only value in finding a player like one of the Tylers is that you don’t have to spend a pick or trade a player to get him.