The NHL trade deadline is about more than just watching teams make really questionable rental deals, it’s also about setting the rosters for the playoffs in two leagues.

The Time

The deadline this year is Monday, February 25 at 3 p.m. New York time.

As always, we might hear about trades after that time, as the NHL counts it as a deadline for filing the trade, and they get bogged down on approvals sometimes.

The NHL Rules

To play in the NHL playoffs, a player must be on the NHL roster by the deadline (to clarify, not the 23-man active roster, here, but the 50-man roster of players under NHL contract who are in the NHL or loaned elsewhere). The only exception to this is the case of players on the reserve list (mostly unsigned drafted players) who are playing in Europe or the NCAA. Occasionally they will sign an ELC and play on the NHL team in the playoffs after their season is over.

Any pro player a team doesn’t have the rights to who has played in a league not in North America must pass through entry waivers if he is signed to an NHL deal. This keeps NHL teams from talent hunting in Europe at this time of the year. On rare occasions, it is done. There were some “character” players added to a few teams in 2018 after the Olympics and just before the deadline who have cleared waivers and played on their teams.

The Roster Rules and Waivers

On deadline day, the restriction of the NHL roster to 23 players is dropped. However, the roster of players either healthy or on IR (but not LTIR) must fit under the cap ceiling. The reason many teams wait to the last day to make trades is to avoid having to worry about clearing roster space for the acquisitions. Clearing cap space is hard enough for some teams.

The waiver rules do not change. If a player is not exempt, and the team needs to move him to the AHL, he goes through waivers. This is true for the remainder of the season and the playoffs.

While the AHL season is ongoing, players on the NHL roster post-deadline can only be sent to the AHL if they are on recall from the AHL in the first place.

The AHL Rules

The AHL playoff roster is affected by the NHL trade deadline, as it’s the AHL trade deadline too, and there will be AHL-contracted players and NHL-contracted AHLers swapped as teams seek to shore up their rosters.

An NHL-contracted player must be on the roster of the AHL team at the deadline to qualify for the AHL playoffs. This rule does not affect players added to the AHL team via ATO, PTO or AHL contracts, or players recalled from loan to other leagues.

NHL, AHL and ECHL Hockey Contracts 101

If a team has players that might be used in either playoffs, what happens is a series of paper transactions (this means the player doesn’t actually go anywhere physically). The player will be “papered down” to the AHL before the deadline and recalled right after it.  This only applies to waiver exempt players, though. If a player requires waivers, and an NHL team wants him on the AHL roster for the playoffs, they have to risk the waiver wire.

However, this is complicated by the restrictions on recalls from the minors after the deadline:

  • Once the team’s AHL season is over, any NHL-contracted player can be added to the NHL roster
  • There are four regular recall slots available to be used at any time by the NHL team to add players from the AHL
  • There is an unlimited number of emergency recalls to be used to replace injured players on the NHL roster
  • There is a restriction on the number of recalled players on the NHL roster at any one time/

These restrictions limit that willingness of an NHL team to stock the press box with the so-called black aces until the AHL season has ended for their affiliate.

The Leafs This Season

Once an NHL team becomes a perennial playoff team with aspirations beyond the first round, they have fewer decisions to make at this time of the year. There aren’t a lot of players on the roster who could be sent down for the AHL playoffs who are waivers exempt. If Trevor Moore is in the NHL on deadline day, he would likely be papered down and recalled.

The Leafs are at home that day, and the Marlies will be just back from a road game.

Two players who aren’t waiver exempt who might be sent down are Frederik Gauthier and Justin Holl. There is risk of a claim with either player, so perhaps their AHL playoff days are over.

The Marlies are currently in an insecure playoff spot, and they are rich in defencemen, so it’s not a sure thing there’d be a lot of appetite to send those players down. Once the Marlies playoffs are over, the Leafs can call up anyone they like without restriction. There are some players who might benefit from the experience of at least watching an NHL playoffs, but the Leafs have cap concerns. It will be clearer after the deadline if they can afford to add anyone without eating into the room being left for the performance bonuses due to Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.

Whatever the Leafs do trade-wise in the next few days, deadline day itself is likely to be pretty uneventful.