The beginning of the latest hockey season seems as good a time as any to talk about the NHL's waiver process. The 2012-22 Collective Bargaining Agreement, ratified on February 13, 2013, changed the waiver process. The biggest change is that re-entry waivers, introduced in the 2006 CBA, have been dropped. This change greatly simplifies the waiver process, leaving the determination of exempt players the only complicated part of the system.
NHL teams are only allowed to carry three more players than are able to play in a game. Injuries are a fact of life in professional hockey and most teams will need to call a number of players up from their minor league affiliates during the course of a season. The waiver rules are in place to keep teams from stuffing their minor league affiliates or European teams with high-end players. It does this by creating a mechanism for other teams to take those players if they're too good. The system encourages teams to stock their minor league affiliates with developing players, largely by making those players exempt from the process.
Types of waivers
Regular waivers are the waivers teams use when they want to send a player to or from the minor leagues or bring a player in from another, usually European, league.
Unconditional waivers are also called $125 waivers, because teams pay $125 to pick up a player from them. Unconditional waivers are the ones a team uses when it wants to terminate a player's contract. There are rules elsewhere in the CBA about the circumstances of a contract termination, but the most used one is a buyout.
Re-entry waivers, as explained above, were a product of the prior CBA but are no longer in effect. Any player who was paid over a threshold amount was subject to re-entry waivers when he was called up to the NHL. If that player was claimed, the claiming team would only have to pay half of his salary and the waiving team was on the hook for the other half. Re-entry waivers were a mechanism to keep teams from stashing ringers in the AHL. However, once teams started to send players to the AHL to exempt their salaries from the salary cap, it became an incentive to keep those players there. The result was the end of re-entry waivers and institution of the "Wade Redden Rule" (paragraph 50.5(d)(i)(B)(6)), which states that for purposes of computing a team's average salary for cap compliance, salaries for players on a one-way contract count to the extent that they are higher than the minimum NHL salary plus $375,000.
How the system works
The waiver list
Starting twelve days before the start of the season and ending on the day of each team's final game, teams wishing to loan players on their active rosters to any other league must first place the player on waivers. Every day at noon Eastern Time, the league publishes the list of players on waivers. For a 24 hour period following publication of the list, players on waivers cannot be loaned or traded. All other teams in the league are eligible to claim any player on waivers. If no team places a claim, then the team can loan the player to another league.
There are, of course, limitations. The only league recognized by the NHL is the AHL. Any player passing through waivers can be loaned to any AHL team. No player can be loaned to any other league without his permission, except that players in the entry-level system (initial contracts) can be loaned to any ECHL team provided he's paid his AHL salary.
The waiver claim
If one club makes a claim for a player, then that player is transferred to that club. If more than one club makes a claim, the one with the lowest points in the standings receives the player, unless the claim is made outside the season (ie. during the playoffs or preseason) or before November 1st, in which case the team who finished lowest in the previous season receives the player. If the teams are tied, then a series of tiebreakers are used.
If the player is not physically fit when the claim is made (as determined by the Commissioner), the claiming team can refuse the assignment.
Once a team claims a player from waivers, it may not trade that player unless it first offers him to any other teams who made waiver claims for him. If the claiming team places the player on waivers in the same season and his original team claims him, the team may send the player to the AHL without placing him on waivers again unless he meets the criteria for waiver expiration below.
If a team brings in a player from a league outside North America after the start of the NHL season, then that player must pass through waivers before playing in the NHL. If such a player is claimed from waivers, he cannot be traded for the rest of the season without passing through waivers.
Once a player clears waivers, the team does not have to immediately reassign the player. However, once the player has played ten games or spent thirty days on an NHL roster, the waivers expire and the player will have to clear again before being loaned to another league.
The most difficult part of the waiver system is that of exemption. As a general rule, developing players are exempt from the waiver requirement: teams are free to assign them to the minor leagues and to recall them. Specifically, exemption is determined by a combination of the number of years under contract and games played. Once a player hits a threshold number of games played based on the player's age and the number of years since he signed his first NHL contract, he loses the exemption and must pass through waivers. The number of years and games is set down in a table in paragraph 13.4 of the CBA:
For waiver purposes, NHL regular season games and playoff games count the same. Immediately after a player plays the number of games indicated, he loses the waiver exemption. If he doesn't reach the number of games, he nevertheless loses his waiver exemption on reaching the number of seasons under an NHL contract.
This is relatively straightforward. However, there are a number of additional rules that make it more complicated. First, the number of years is reduced by two for eighteen year old or nineteen year old players playing more than eleven NHL games. So, any goalie playing more than eleven NHL games by age nineteen will lose waiver exemption after four seasons and any skater doing the same will lose waiver exemption after three.
Additionally, for players twenty or older, all professional games count, not just NHL games. This includes all minor league games and European league games while the player is on loan and signed to an NHL team. For waiver purposes, age eighteen means the player reaches that age between January 1 and September 15 of the draft year. Ages from nineteen to twenty-one mean that the player reaches that age during the year of the draft.
I recommend using CapGeek's waiver status calculator to determine waiver exemption: http://www.capgeek.com/waiver-calculator/. It requires a few steps, but is still far simpler than attempting to calculate it completely by hand.
One-way v. Two-way Contracts
The rules above are the complete rules for determining whether a player has to pass through Regular Waivers. There is a widely-held misconception that whether the player has a one or two-way contract has an effect on waiver status. The only thing a one-way or a two-way contract signifies is what the player is paid. A player on a two-way contract is paid one salary in the NHL and a lesser salary in the AHL. A player on a one-way contract is paid the same whether he is playing in the NHL or AHL.
A player's AHL salary determined whether a player was eligible for re-entry waivers, but with those a thing of the past, the type of contract has absolutely no bearing on the NHL waiver process, no matter how it works in EA Sport's NHL series of video games.
Players on loan to an affiliated league may be recalled without waivers under emergency conditions, established when injury, illness or suspensions result in the availability of fewer than two goalkeepers, six defensemen and twelve forwards. Players recalled under emergency conditions must be returned as soon as the emergency is over.
For purposes of determining emergency conditions, players on loan at the trade deadline are considered to be on loan for the remainder of the season and playoffs, even if the minor league club's season is finished.
Injured players cannot be loaned to a minor league team before being cleared to play. However, because the waiver expiration rules are not suspended when a player is injured, if the player was already recalled from that team and waivers haven't expired, he can be returned to the minor league team, but he still receives his NHL salary until cleared to play.
If the player agrees, a team can send him without waivers to the AHL for a conditioning loan for up to fourteen consecutive days.
A player on long-term injured reserve can be sent, if he agrees, to the AHL on a conditioning loan for up to three games or six days, whichever is longer, to determine if he is fit to play.
For the remainder of the regular season following the trade deadline, only four players may be recalled. However, players may be recalled on emergency recall, and players may be recalled when the minor league club has finished its season.
For playoffs, teams may recall an unlimited number of players, but is limited to only three recalled players on the active roster at once. That is, unless it recalled four players following the trade deadline, in which case it can keep all four for the remainder of the playoffs.
The waiver system is an important part of a team's roster selection process, and it helps fans understand better how teams make those decisions when they understand how the process works. The system is complicated in parts, but it's well worth taking the time to understand it if you really want to understand how the league works off the ice.