It’s waiver wire season in the NHL. As teams around the league pare down their rosters in preparation for opening night, players are starting to get put on waivers.
The Canucks’ first couple rounds of cuts avoided waivers. Many were not even signed to contracts with the Canucks, so waivers never entered the picture, while others are not yet eligible for waivers, as they haven’t played enough NHL games or it hasn’t been long enough since they signed their first NHL contract. While waiver eligibility is a little more complex than that, but those are the two basic factors.
This next round of cuts, however, will include a player that will have to clear waivers: Justin Bailey. While it’s unlikely anyone will put in a claim on the journeyman winger — he has never been able to stick in an NHL lineup for a full season — he’ll have to clear waivers before the Canucks can send him down to the Utica Comets in the AHL.
This time of year really is the best time to put players on waivers for a couple reasons. Most players are healthy after the summer months, so teams don’t have holes in their lineup due to injury and every team is trying to cut down their roster to 23 and are looking to subtract rather than add players.
That said, there’s still a risk when putting a player on waivers. Another team, unhappy with their current roster, may make a claim and pluck that player out of your system. Keep in mind, this is also the time of year when the waiver wire is at its peak. As teams make tough decisions, some will have to cut some pretty good players, giving other teams an opportunity to pick them up without spending any assets.
Is this something the Canucks should be worried about as they make decisions about their own roster? Let’s take a look at their current situation.
In the tables below, the players exempt from waivers are highlighted in gold (plus one unsigned PTO highlighted in red). That means everyone else is subject to waivers if they get sent down. I’ve also drawn a dark line around a prospective 23-man roster, minus Antoine Roussel, who will start the season on Long-Term Injured Reserve.
That line defines the roster battles that remain as the Canucks progress through the preseason. For someone below that line to make the team, they’ll have to unseat someone above the line.
Let’s start with the forwards.
The only waiver-exempt forwards on the prospective roster I’ve outlined are Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Obviously, they’re not getting sent down, but that means the 11 other forwards would have to clear waivers to go to the AHL.
That includes players with top-six potential, like Nikolay Goldobin and Josh Leivo, along with bottom-six forwards like Brandon Sutter, Jay Beagle, and Loui Eriksson.
That means, for someone like Adam Gaudette, Tyler Motte, Zack MacEwen, or Tim Schaller to make the team, another player would have to be put on waivers. Motte and Schaller would also have to clear waivers — no matter what, the Canucks are going to have to put a bunch of players on waivers.
For players like Gaudette and MacEwen, that makes their battle to make the Canucks out of camp that much harder. Not only do they have to outperform roster players, they have to outperform them to such an extent that the Canucks are willing to lose those roster players.
Gaudette took a step forward on Thursday against the Oilers, getting several scoring chances before finally scoring the 6-1 goal. He celebrated with an over-exuberant fist-pump, but it's understandable: he needs to make a big impression to stick in the NHL out of camp.
It’s far more likely, however, that Gaudette will start the season in the AHL, even if he lights up the rest of the preseason. Because he's exempt from waivers, the Canucks don't need to worry about losing him and they will need depth when the inevitable injuries come; from an asset management standpoint, it just makes sense.
On the other hand, would Eriksson actually get claimed off waivers with his onerous contract? Would the Canucks even be willing to put Eriksson on waivers, given that he’s still an effective depth forward and penalty killer and sending him to the minors would only gain them $1.075 million in cap space, which would immediately be used up to pay for the player replacing him?
Now let’s look at the defence.
The situation is a little different on defence than it is on forward, as almost all of the players the Canucks are likely to cut and send down to the AHL are exempt from waivers.
The lone exception is Ashton Sautner, who has been a capable fill-in for the Canucks over the past couple seasons, playing 22 games combined. But Sautner is unlikely to move the needle for teams watching the waiver wire — his defensively responsible game also comes with a complete lack of offence — so it’s unlikely he would get claimed if sent down.
Perhaps Sautner could make an argument to be the team’s spare defenceman on the left side, bumping newcomer Oscar Fantenberg to the waiver wire. We’ll see. As it stands, he's likely Utica-bound.
Olli Juolevi will start the season with the Utica Comets as he slowly makes his way back to playing after knee surgery last season, and Guillaume Brisebois, Josh Teves, and Jalen Chatfield aren’t threats to make the Canucks out of camp. That leaves Brogan Rafferty.
Rafferty stood out in his brief stint last season with the Canucks, immediately showing poise with the puck and a strong two-way game. He’s impressed in the preseason as well: despite a couple noticeable mistakes defensively, he’s mostly been solid in the defensive end of the ice, and made his presence felt in the offensive zone on Thursday against the Oilers.
Not only did Rafferty score the game’s opening goal with a booming slap shot from the point, he showed his ability to jump up in the play to set up Josh Leivo with a great scoring chance. He’s also shown a proclivity for picking the right time to pinch down the boards and keep puck possession alive in the opponent’s end of the ice.
The trouble for Rafferty is that the Canucks would need to put another defenceman on waivers if they wanted to make room for him. There’s also the issue that their top-six is set — the Canucks won’t be cutting guys like Jordie Benn and Troy Stecher — so the only opportunity would be as a seventh or eighth defenceman.
While Fantenberg would be a potential cut, Rafferty is a right-side defenceman, and the Canucks like to have an even number of left and right-side defencemen on the roster. That means Rafferty would probably have to supplant Alex Biega to make the team.
The issue is that Biega is a near-perfect fit as the Canucks’ seventh defenceman: he’s a hard-working, diligent veteran that never takes a day off despite never knowing if he’ll get in the lineup. When he does get out of the press box and hits the ice, he has a positive impact on the game with his ability to rush the puck up ice and create offensive opportunities.
The Canucks, and particularly head coach Travis Green, like Biega and it’s hard to imagine them putting him on waivers for Rafferty to make the team. Besides, it’s likely better for Rafferty to report to Utica and play big minutes in the AHL, rather than sit in the press box for most of his first professional season.
Finally, we come to the goaltenders.
There’s no question what’s going to happen here: Zane McIntyre and Richard Bachman will get put on waivers, while Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko battle for starts in the NHL.
If either McIntyre or Bachman get claimed off waivers, that would change the complexion of the Canucks’ goaltending depth, but it’s unlikely. Both are veteran AHL goaltenders with a bit of NHL experience, but no one is going to claim either of them to be an NHL backup. They’ll both head to Utica, where they’ll have to figure out if prospects Michael DiPietro and Jake Kielly will head to the ECHL.
So, what have we learned from looking at the Canucks’ waiver situation? It’s clear that it’s an uphill battle for waiver-exempt players like Gaudette, MacEwen, and Rafferty to make the Canucks out of camp, particularly when the Canucks will already have to put capable NHL players on waivers as it is.
The battles at this point are at the fringes of the lineup: between Eriksson, Motte, and Schaller to play on the fourth line, with the wild card of someone like Goldobin going on waivers to make room for one of them; or between Fantenberg and Sautner to be the eighth defenceman.
Of course, injuries in the next week or so could change the equation significantly, making room for a player to make the roster that would otherwise have been sent to the AHL. Excepting injuries, however, the decisions as to who makes the Canucks' opening night roster could come down to is who is more likely to get picked up off waivers.