The Leafs keep having to play with an ATO backup goalie. They might have to do it again today.
Is it because the NHL is picking on the Leafs, and are out to get the Leafs and hate the Leafs? No, actually, it's because the Leafs said, "Look over here, pay no attention to the hand behind my back," and the league said, "What's that behind your back?"
What the Leafs were trying to hide behind their back was a very implausible tale.
- In late March, Joe Woll was moving up and down to the Leafs on emergency recall as one or the other goalie was hurt and/or Samsonov was on baby-duty.
- On April 2, Bobby McMann, who was hurt while on the Leafs, was moved to LTIR to make space for Nick Abruzzese to come on the team as some forwards were banged up.
- In the Detroit game on April 2, Matt Murray was knocked down and hits his head on the ice.
- On April 6, Abruzzese and Wayne Simmonds were returned to the AHL leaving just enough LTIR pool room to reactivate the now-healthy Ryan O'Reilly. Joe Woll was in the NHL again with Murray out.
- Murray could not be put on LTIR because there were fewer than 10 games left in the regular season.
- With Woll in and O'Reilly back, the LTIR pool room was < one player's salary.
Now comes the tall tale. You are required to believe that:
- The Leafs thought Matt Murray could play, so they returned Joe Woll to the AHL on April 7 (the Frozen Four final was April 8).
- But then Calle Järnkrok was injured, so they recalled Wayne Simmonds on April 7 using all the available LTIR pool created by sending down Woll.
- Oh, my goodness, in a situation no one could foresee, Murray isn't better!! No one knows what to do!
- Joe Woll cannot be recalled, but the emergency exception rule means that if the team plays short for a game, they can recall, free under the salary cap, a low-salary player to fill in for the next game at the position they played short.
- Jett Alexander plays and everyone is charmed.
- The Maple Leafs return Wayne Simmonds to the AHL and sign Matt Knies.
- The NHL then says, "Pull the other one, it's got bells on."
Why does the NHL hate the Leafs?
They know, and I know, and you know (as soon as you detach the fan goggles) that the Leafs knew that Matt Murray was not healthy. They sent Woll back down on April 7 to create the emergency to allow them to recall him for free after they signed Matt Knies, using all the LTIR room. And that was a step too far for the league to allow.
At the time they returned Woll to the AHL and recalled Wayne Simmonds, I said, "That looks so much like cap circumvention, it might just be cap circumvention." And so it was, and frankly, the Leafs are lucky they aren't getting fined. They could have merely played a forward short and then recalled someone (not Simmonds, he makes too much) the next game for free. But that wouldn't open up space for Knies to sign, so they tried this goalie shuffle.
So what now? The Leafs can just send someone down, damn the waivers, and it's fine, right?
There are rules about recalls and reassignments after the trade deadline. To send a player to the AHL, he has to have been in the NHL on recall at the deadline or injured in the NHL after not having played many NHL games. So Carl Dahlström could be sent down, Victor Mete and Bobby McMann can be sent down when healthy, but no one currently on the roster and using cap space/LTIR pool is eligible to be demoted.
Wayne Simmonds and Joe Woll were papered down and up on deadline day to make them eligible to be sent down post deadline.
The Leafs are stuck. Ironically, the Leafs passed up a chance last night in Florida to get a forward for free under the Emergency Exception rules. They had 11 healthy forwards, since Sam Lafferty was deemed not fit to play along with Calle Järnkrok. In the warm up, Erik Gustafsson suffered an upper body injury and left. If the Leafs had played with six defenders and 11 forwards, they would be able to recall Nick Abruzzese today as their freebie. But they didn't, they replaced Gustafsson with Luke Schenn just in time to file the game sheet correctly, and are now stuck with the skaters they have, in the condition they are in and one goalie.
ATO goalies can only appear in one game, so the Leafs have to find another for tonight.
Is there no reprieve?
Cap Friendly thinks so. (This article was written with the invaluable help of Cap Friendly's site, as usual.)
I disagree with this entirely. Which doesn't mean they aren't right. The Emergency Exception rules are in the form of: When a player becomes injured and a team plays with less than 18 skaters and 2 goalies...
What that says to me is that if there was a new injury to a goalie post the return of Woll to the AHL, they'd be fine. But this is the same ongoing fiddle on the part of the Leafs.
However, the CBA is not the law, although it is a binding contract. Gary Bettman is not the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Hockey, he has a lot of discretion. Emergency Exceptions are at his discretion to approve. Might he take pity on the Leafs and allow that this is a new emergency and let them recall Woll?
Consider that all the other teams are his bosses too, and they have to be kept happy with the way the league is run, so this is a political problem as much as anything. The NHLPA is the body that will argue for or against a move by the league here, and they're unlikely to object to Woll returning. Picking apart the CBA only gets you so close to the truth – these other considerations matter.
There is a great deal of talk in the media and from GMs and team ownership that the current rules around goalie use are dangerous to player health. The Leafs boxed themselves into this corner, and are asking Samsonov to pay the freight for it. But the initial problem began when Matt Murray – obviously hurt – could not be put on LTIR. Is that a good thing? Should there be a goalie exception to that? Or is that just opening the door for teams to rest their "hurt" and highly-paid goalie at the end of the year and recall a bunch of AHLers with the cap space?
The salary cap exists for reasons most fans of wealthy teams don't like. But the league likes them, and understands the dynamics of building successful franchises in markets that don't charge Leafs prices for tickets. The league wants to keep teams colouring within the lines, not out of some desire to rules lawyer them or pick on them or persecute a fanbase, but to keep the entire league as healthy as possible. Yes, yes, Arizona, though. The point stands.
Gary Bettman has to decide if the Leafs get a pass for two meaningless games in the interest of player safety or not.