By Craig Custance
Oct 7, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
What’s the deal with NHL waivers and players consistently getting through?
By Craig Custance
Oct 7, 2019
The names hit the waiver wire last week and the jokes followed immediately. Like, for instance, the group of players on waivers could beat the Senators. Or the Oilers should rebuild their bottom six entirely from Monday’s collection of forwards on waivers.
There were fairly recent first-round picks like Josh Ho-Sang, Curtis Lazar, Sven Baertschi, Marko Dano and Nikolay Goldobin. Daniel Sprong was on there, and he’s coming off a season in which he scored 14 goals in 47 games for the Ducks and is still just 22 years old. On defense, you had your pick of familiar names like Luke Schenn or Thomas Hickey. There were useful goalies like Casey DeSmith, Anton Forsberg or Eric Comrie.
A little something for everybody!
And then, as is usually the case, most of those players cleared. On Tuesday, Comrie was claimed by the Arizona Coyotes and Carl Dahlstrom picked up by the Winnipeg Jets. The other 37 players went back to their original teams. It went like this for most of training camp.
“We all have constraints that we’re dealing with, whether it’s roster size or cap issue. They all come into play. Especially that last day,” said Coyotes GM John Chayka, one of two GMs to grab a player from the lengthy waiver list. “Some teams, injuries in the preseason can really alter their cap planning in a significant way. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it, you go through the iterations and there’s an ultimate day you have to make those decisions. Adding another player can create more complexity to how that decision is made.”
So yeah, it can get complicated. Especially at the outset of the season. Why don’t these players get claimed? Usually it’s one of these reasons:
We talk a lot about the salary cap and the squeeze teams are under, but we rarely get into the contract limits. Each team is allowed 50 standard player contracts but most GMs don’t want to get to 50 because that really limits their flexibility. In fact, many executives will tell you that they try to avoid even getting to 49. The sweet spot seems to be around 47 contracts.
“No one wants to be at 50 because then the only thing you can do is just make trades,” said one NHL source. “Then you can’t sign anybody … you just have no flexibility.”
Multiple sources were under the impression that the Ottawa Senators were interested in grabbing a player off that lengthy list last week but were limited by contracts. According to CapFriendly, Ottawa currently is at 49 SPCs, which doesn’t leave the Senators a ton of flexibility.
“Don’t take NHL contracts just to take them,” warned an assistant GM. “You can get yourself in trouble.”
Salary cap: This one is pretty self-explanatory, especially near the end of training camp when teams have squeezed every last dollar out of their budget and cap situation before the start of the season. Many teams simply didn’t have cap space to add guys. Sure, you may think Baertschi is an NHL player but probably not at an annual cap hit of $3.37 million per season through 2020-21.
Another team that needs help on defense looked hard at Hickey and debated him internally but ultimately didn’t want to commit to an AAV of $2.5 million through 2021-22, especially because of his concussion history. This is a hard time of year to add money.
Teams like their own players better (right now): The start of the season is filled with optimism, great stories of training camp standouts and young players earning a spot on a roster. So it can be hard for a team to rip that opportunity away for somebody from another franchise who may be more of a projection than someone who has earned the opportunity.
“Teams are giving their kids a chance,” said one executive.
And teams tend to overvalue their own players. They’ve invested a ton in them – everything from a draft pick to years of development. They’re invested.
“There’s a bit of an endowment type of bias,” Chayka said. “They’re yours. You typically view them higher than the rest of the world. Some guys have a good preseason and you want to see the best in them. You want to give them a chance. A lot of teams want to give their own guy the benefit. It should still be an evaluation but it’s tough.”
It’s often preferable to make a trade:
One of the interesting side stories of last week’s waiver moves (or lack thereof) is that Ho-Sang cleared waivers and then requested a trade from the Islanders through agent Ian Pulver. On the surface, it looks like a complete misread of the situation from the player’s perspective. You just passed through waivers. Not a single team made the claim. Who is going to make a trade? But the reality is that teams would probably rather trade for a fringe NHL player than acquire them via waivers because it provides more flexibility. Had a team claimed Ho-Sang, they’d have to keep him on their roster for 30 days or 10 games before they can send him to the AHL. Otherwise, you’re basically just offering him back up to the Islanders when you put him on waivers to send him down.
“It’s only 24 hours. You have to put that player on your NHL roster. You can’t put him in the minors,” said an agent. “The team that just put him on waivers can claim him and send him to the minors. They have first dibs.”
If you trade for a fringe player, you keep your total contracts at the same number (assuming it’s one-for-one) and you can send him to your AHL team. We’ve already seen one player from that list last week go unclaimed and then get traded in Vancouver defenseman Alex Biega who was sent to Detroit in the middle of the night for minor league forward David Pope.
Training camp is a good time to sneak players through waivers because of all the aforementioned issues. But those start to clear up as the season progresses. Later on, teams start dealing with more injuries. Those young players who looked so good in preseason games are now suddenly struggling.
“Once you get yourself compliant for the first day (of the season), then you have more flexibility,” said an agent.
Managers know this. They’re not just putting guys on waivers and crossing their fingers. There’s usually a good idea of how it’s going to play out.
“Sometimes they’re certain they’re going to get guys through,” Chayka said. “They do their own due diligence and they’re confident they’ll get a guy through.”
One source suggested that it’s very likely a guy like Sprong gets claimed if he gets placed on waivers in a few weeks. Him slipping through was a result of the timing.
“That’s a guy if you saw him (on waivers) in a couple weeks, he’d get gobbled up when teams realize their kids aren’t that good,” he said.
The players on waivers probably are not as good as we think:
When colleague Dom Luszczyszyn ran last week’s waiver list through his model, the only forwards it identified as potential upgrades were Ho-Sang, Sprong and Baertschi. Luszczyszyn estimated they were worth roughly a half a win each. The rest were replacement level guys.
“I thought the group was weak,” said an executive when asked why more players weren’t claimed. “I was not impressed.”
Ho-Sang may be the most talented of the group but teams expressed concern about bringing in a player who is known as a likable kid who also drives coaches crazy.
“We talked about him,” said another executive who raised character concerns. “It’s the start of the season. Do you want to bring that in? Ho-Sang clears now. But does he clear in 30 days?”
But ultimately, as teams are settling into the roster they want to get rolling with, the waiver wire just isn’t enough of an upgrade to make a change.
“There were no game-changers on there,” said a team executive. “We already have those players here. How much of an upgrade is it?
Then you’re going to have to waive a six or seventh defenseman or something. Is it worth it?”