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Waiver Exempt Rotation: A Development Strategy for the Maple Leafs

The Leafs must take advantage of the easy access to prospects they created by locating their AHL team in the same city.

The way Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas builds his NHL team has changed. The uncontrollable force of the coronavirus caused Dubas to alter his philosophy, and the strategy and tactics that had been previously approved by Maple Leafs President & Alternate Governor Brendon Shanahan.

On July 10th 2020 the NHL and the NHLPA announced that the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs would resume in two bubbles, without fans in the seats. Included in the return-to-play agreement was a flat salary cap for at least the 2020/21 season, which we now know will be a 2021 season. On October 6th 2020 NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced January 1st 2021 as the targeted start date for the 2021 season.

The flat salary cap means the proportional weight of the salaries paid to Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander will remain at 49.7% of the $81.5 million upper limit of the cap space.

The tip of Dubas’ new philosophy, strategy, and tactics has already been revealed. It goes beyond adding pieces that will make the Leafs incredibly hard to play against. It includes a way to not be boxed in by the flat salary cap. It includes what the Leafs can do with players that are waiver exempt.

Dubas Draws Attention to What He Can Do with Waiver Exempt Players

On a recent call with TSN staff, Dubas was asked about his two restricted free agents, defenseman Travis Dermott and forward Ilya Mikheyev, and his sounding confident that he’ll have both of them under contract.

Dubas said:

“Between the free agents that we still have and what we can do with them on their contracts, and additionally the players that are waiver exempt for us, we wanted to always be able to have a way, and find a way, to not box ourselves in and have to move somebody.”

The waiver exempt players currently listed on the Leafs NHL roster are defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, and forwards Pierre Engvall and Nicholas Robertson.

Maple Leafs prospect, Nicholas Robertson

One option Dubas has to free up the cap space required to sign Dermot and Mikheyev is to assign waiver exempt players, and their contracts, to the Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies.

Assigning both waiver exempt forwards Engvall and Robertson to the Marlies would give the Leafs 12 NHL roster forwards, including Joe Thornton. At best, it makes room for one waiver exempt forward on the Leafs NHL roster. It shouldn’t be restricted to Engvall and Robertson, though. There are several others on the list of non-roster forwards that need to be given a chance at the NHL level, such as Alexander Barabanov, Yegor Korshkov, Adam Brooks, and Joey Anderson.

Assuming defenseman Dermott signs, he would join Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, and new defense additions T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian. That’s six defensemen. A seventh defenseman, 26 year old Calle Rosen, is currently listed on the Leafs NHL roster but he is not waiver exempt.

Related: The Maple Leafs Being Hit Hard by Flat Salary Cap Era

In order to further develop and assess the NHL readiness of Sandin, Liljegren and a few other waiver exempt defensemen currently listed as non-roster players such as Mikko Lehtonen and Teemu Kivihalme, Calle Rosen will need to be traded for futures or put on waivers with the intent of assigning him to the Marlies.  

How Can Waiver Exempt Players Be Assessed for NHL Readiness?

The best way to assess the NHL readiness of a player is to give them a safe chance to play some minutes in the NHL. Beyond on-ice minutes, there is also valuable experience gained through being in the dressing room and on the bench, participating in practice, getting to know the trainers, and traveling with the team.

With names already attached to 12 forward positions and six defensemen, and the possibility that the salary cap constraints may require the Leafs to open the season with the less than the maximum of 23 players, there may only be room on the NHL roster for one waiver exempt forward and one defenseman.

Pierre-Engvall Toronto Maple Leafs
Pierre-Engvall Toronto Maple Leafs

The greatest, and possibly only, legacy of former Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. is his relocation of the Maple Leafs’ AHL farm team from St. John’s Newfoundland to Toronto.

More now than at any other time since the NHLPA’s 2005 agreement to a hard salary cap, the Maple Leafs should consciously adopt a player development and assessment strategy that takes full advantage of their farm team, the Toronto Marlies, being located in the same city.

The Maple Leafs Should Rotate Waiver Exempt Players In and Out of the Line-up  

Few would argue that Dubas used the current period of free agency to acquire players that will make the Leafs harder to play against. It was achieved by retaining Jason Spezza and adding a nice compliment of seasoned veterans, Wayne Simmonds, Thornton, T.J. Brodie, and Zach Bogosian.

The downside, from a player development and assessment perspective, the rebuilt roster and flat salary cap barely leaves room for a 13th forward and a seventh defenseman.

Fortunately, the Leafs have more than one prospect at each of these positions. On defense, Sandin (20), Liljegren (21), Lehtonen (26) and Kivihalme (25) have already been mentioned. There are a few more than them however for demonstration purposes let’s focus on those four.

Six forward prospects have already been mentioned, Engvall (24), Robertson (19), Barabanov (26), Korshkov (24), Brooks (24), and Anderson (22). For demonstration of the proposed rotation of waiver exempt players in and out of the line-up, let’s keep all six players in the mix. In actuality, the number can be reduced a little or a lot.

How Would the Rotation of Waiver Exempt Players In and Out of the Line-up Work?  

During a recent interview Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley commented on the short term future of the NHL. He proposed a 48-to-56 game regular season followed by a full 2021 Stanley Cup playoff schedule. Due to American TV rights to the Summer Olympics belonging to NBC, Foley noted the NHL has a hard deadline for everything to be completed.

The hard deadline creates a scenario where each team plays four games per week, maybe more. Due to injuries, likely more than historical averages, and the need to rest some players, there will be sufficient opportunity for waiver exempt players to get playing time.

Without nailing down an exact rotation schedule, let’s use the lower number of 48 regular season games to demonstrate how the scheme works and benefits player development and assessment.

The six players that comprise the pool of waiver exempt forwards would each spend eight of 48 games with the big club. The four players that comprise the pool of waiver exempt defensemen would each get 12 games with the Leafs.

The allotment of games for each player can be split in two. Each forward gets two four-game call-ups. Each of the four defensemen gets two six-game call-ups. If the regular season schedule is more than 48 games then the duration of each call-up is longer.

Maple Leafs prospect, Mikko Lehtonen

What risk does the scheme pose to the Leafs regular season performance and ultimately the final standing; making the playoffs or not? The risk would be minimal, at best. Coach Sheldon Keefe controls how players are utilized and whether the waiver exempt player suits up at all during the call-up period.

The benefits are multiple. In any market environment, competition is healthy for everyone concerned. The number of games allotted to each waiver exempt player is sufficient for them to show what they’ve got, and how they can contribute to team success going forward, which is hopefully the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s a fair and respectful process, giving many players a chance to become full-time NHLers.

Repeated annually, it gives hope to the other, younger, prospects that maybe next year they’ll be a part of the waiver exempt rotation. However the concept gets sliced and diced, it’s a sound approach for developing and assessing players in the pipeline.  

Next: Mitch Marner: An Indispensable Piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

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