One week into training camp, teams have already started to make roster decisions. In some cases, that means returning players to their junior teams, sending AHL-ready skaters back to compete for jobs with the farm team or, in some cases, cutting veterans who were in camp on tryout agreements.
But over the next two weeks, as teams trim their rosters down to the 23-man group needed for opening night, things are going to get much more difficult. Not only will decisions have to be made about who is winning and losing jobs, but choices will have to be made about players who will potentially have to be lost for nothing. And those decisions could start as early as Friday afternoon when the NHL’s waiver wire officially opens.
Waivers have become a concern before the season starts over the past few years, too. Take last season, for instance. Before the NHL campaign was even a day old in 2016-17, six players had been moved along by waiver claims, with P-A Parenteau, Mike Condon and Martin Frk among them. In some cases, like that of Parenteau, it’s simply because there was no room for him on the squad. That’s what resulted in his move from the New York Islanders to the New Jersey Devils last year. For others, like Condon and Frk, it’s a numbers game. With only 23 roster spots and only so many waiver-exempt players, decisions, sometimes tough ones, have to be made that exposes a player with promise. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost Condon, and Detroit Red Wings, who lost and later got back Frk, didn't want to see either player leave, but roster limits dictated someone had to go. A few teams will be finding themselves in the latter scenario this season, too.
Here are five teams with waiver worries as the 2017-18 NHL season approaches:
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
No team is in a tougher spot than the Golden Knights. Vegas’s expansion draft haul included a boatload of defensemen, some of whom were taken with the intention of flipping them for picks or prospects. Vegas wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, unloading Trevor van Riemsdyk, David Schlemko and Marc Methot in three separate deals that netted the Golden Knights two second-round picks, a fifth-round pick and goaltending prospect Dylan Ferguson, but that hasn’t cleared up the sizeable logjam on the blueline. And that’s a problem.
With two weeks until the season starts, Vegas has 10 defensemen in camp on one-way contracts: Jason Garrison, Luca Sbisa, Clayton Stoner, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Jon Merrill, Colin Miller, Deryk Engelland, Griffin Reinhart and Brad Hunt. The only defenseman who’s eligible to be sent down without clearing waivers is Shea Theodore, and the likelihood of that happening should be zero. Theodore has a ton of upside and a shot at playing a major role on the Vegas blueline, and sending him to the minors isn’t going to do much, if anything, for his development.
So, barring a trade, Vegas is going to have to put a few defenders on waivers ahead of the season. Hunt seems a likely option, as does Stoner. After that, though, the Golden Knights will have to decide between Sbisa, McNabb, Merrill, Engelland and Reinhart as the next casualty. Don’t be surprised if at least one defender sent down gets picked up before he makes it to the AHL.
As far as roster numbers go, it’s not as if Dallas needs to send a handful of players to the minors in order to whittle the roster down for opening night. Realistically, only one player has to get cut. The issue for the Stars, though, is there’s no clear-cut option because they’re lacking players who are waiver-exempt.
For example, say the Stars wanted to keep their eight-defenseman rotation. Dallas would then need to trim a forward from the group. Among those who could be snipped at the end of camp are Curtis McKenzie, Brian Flynn or Adam Cracknell. Any of the three would need to clear waivers before heading to the AHL's Texas Stars, though, and each would at least draw some interest from teams looking to add depth. Conversely, if Dallas wanted to protect their forwards and shift a defenseman to the minors, the decision is even tougher, with Jamie Oleksiak and Greg Pateryn potentially up for grabs on waivers. Oleksiak hasn’t been able to fulfill his potential, but a defenseman of his size would definitely draw interest. The same goes for Pateryn, who’s a capable seventh defenseman when called upon.
Dallas’ decision will likely come down to the lesser of two evils, because unless the Stars fashion a trade, someone is going to have to hit the waiver wire.
Here’s where training camp and pre-season can really create some issues. As it stands, the Canucks are one player over the 23-man roster limit. The good news is that there’s a perfect option to get sent to the AHL from the forward group and one that won’t need to clear waivers to do so. The bad news is the wavier-exempt forward is Brock Boeser.
While no one’s advocating for getting overly excited about pre-season performances, it feels wrong to suggest that Boeser should be starting his season in the AHL given the way he’s played. Through three tuneup games, Boeser has put up four goals and six points and just so happens to be leading the entire league in pre-season scoring. He’s shown flashes of offensive brilliance and if he can continue to play this way into the second week of the exhibition schedule, it’s going to be hard to send him to Utica knowing full well what he can provide.
But keeping Boeser would mean another player has to hit the chopping block, but who? Reid Boucher would be an option, but the Canucks just signed him this summer. Brendan Gaunce could also be without a spot, but his new two-year deal makes waiving him unlikely. So, what about Anton Rodin? The 26-year-old missed 2016-17 due to injury and, according to TSN 1040’s Matthew Sekeres, has an agreement with Vancouver that if he doesn’t make the club, he’ll be sent back to Sweden. That means no waivers and no real loss, and it might mean if Boeser makes the Canucks, it will come at the expense of Rodin.
A team as young as the Jets is bound to have a few waiver-exempt players among its ranks, and Winnipeg indeed does. The issue, however, is that there’s really no way Winnipeg should be sending any of those players down if the goal is to ice the best possible roster each and every night.
Let’s run down their list of waiver-exempt skaters. First, there’s Patrik Laine, who is coming off of a brilliant rookie campaign and is absolutely, positively, not getting sent down. Then there’s Nikolaj Ehlers, who, likewise, is all but guaranteed a top-six spot in Winnipeg this season. The third player who could be sent down without going through waivers is Josh Morrissey, but it makes no sense to send down one of the organization’s brightest young rearguards. Kyle Connor could also make the club, adding a fourth waiver-exempt player but resulting in a situation where two non-exempt players have to hit the wire. Thus, Winnipeg has some choices to make.
One possibility would be to send down a forward, of which the Jets have 14 on one-way deals. The most likely scenario up front would see summer signing Michael Sgarbossa sent to the AHL with the hopes he clears waivers without issue. The other course of action, though, would be to trim the goaltending ranks, where Steve Mason, Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson make up a crowded crease. Obviously, neither Mason or Hellebuyck will hit the waiver wire – the former was signed to bring stability to the position, the latter is still considered the future in goal. That leaves Hutchinson, who put up career-worst numbers last season and has slipped to third on the depth chart.
Thinning out the goaltending ranks for a team that struggled at the position isn’t exactly ideal, but neither is losing a forward signed only months ago. One or both may have to happen when Winnipeg makes its final cuts, though.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Unlike any other team listed above, the Maple Leafs aren’t actually projected to be over the skater limit with any issues right now. Though they have 25 players on their roster, both Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton will find themselves on the LTIR when the campaign begins, and even if nothing changed between now and then, that would be enough to knock the roster down to 23 in time for opening night.
Where the issue lies for the Maple Leafs, though, is icing the optimal roster. Presently, Toronto has most of the pieces in place to do so without much concern, but the one player it's believed they’d love to be able to get into the opening night lineup is Kasperi Kapanen. The winger played well in his limited exposure last season and managed two goals in six games when he was brought up for the post-season, turning heads with his play in the series against the Washington Capitals. It’s not as simple as bringing Kapanen up to the big club, though. Doing so would mean someone has to go down, and you can rest assured that it wouldn’t be one of the Leafs’ three waiver-exempt regulars, who are Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
However, if Toronto does want Kapanen in the lineup, there are realistic choices to be thrown on the waiver wire. The first would be Ben Smith, who was coincidentally claimed off waivers last season before playing in 36 games for the Maple Leafs. His spot is up in the air as it is, so he could be shuffled down. The other option, which might sting a bit more, is Josh Leivo. He’s consistently been able to produce in a fourth-line role with the big club, but he might not be a fit this year given the off-season additions.
The fact of the matter in Toronto, though, is that someone will need to hit waivers if Kapanen is making the team.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.