A refresher on NHL waiver eligibility and why Nils Åman is now “stuck” with the Canucks

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
4 months ago
How do they work?
The process through which an NHL player is deemed waiver-exempt or waiver-eligible is one of the most misunderstood — or just plain not understood — components of professional hockey.
Nils Åman of the Vancouver Canucks, for example, was waiver-exempt at the beginning of the 2023/24 season. That’s why the Canucks were able to send him down to Abbotsford after Training Camp without his having to pass through waivers.
Now, however, Åman has lost that waiver-exempt status, and so the next time the Canucks want to demote him, they’re going to have to offer him up to every other team in the NHL for free first.
Why the sudden change in status?
It’s complicated. But not so complicated that we can’t explain it to you over the length of this article.
Waivers, broadly-speaking, are a system put in place to prevent teams from hoarding talent in the minor leagues, and to prevent individual players from missing out on opportunities for NHL play due to the depth of their organization. The basic idea is that, past a certain point of experience, a player must be offered up to all other teams before they’re allowed to be demoted to the minors.
Before they reach that point of experience, however, players remain waiver-exempt, and are free to be demoted and recalled without ever having to touch the waiver wire.
When exactly a player loses their waiver exemption is a little complex, and the formula was once shrouded in mystery. But the code has been cracked, and it all has to do with the point at which that player signed their first NHL contract.
As soon as a player signs their first NHL contract, a countdown begins of both professional seasons (defined as a season in the NHL or AHL or ECHL under NHL contract) and NHL games played. Whenever the limit is hit in either category, that player loses their waiver exemption and becomes eligible for waivers.
What those limits are, however, depends on at what age that first contract was signed.
Age at SigningProfessional SeasonsNHL Games PlayedProfessional SeasonsNHL Games Played
In short, the later a player signs their first NHL contract, the less time they’re waiver-exempt. There are some exceptions to this rule, including that any 18- or 19-year-old who plays 11 or more NHL games in a season has their exemption time reduced.
There are also reduced games-played totals for those players who were around to have their seasons shortened by the 2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other than that it’s a process of figuring out when a player signed and then counting down from there, with a single pro game played counting as a “professional season” beyond those teenage years.
Vancouver fans might remember this whole process as the reason why Nils Höglander didn’t get recalled from Abbotsford after being demoted last season.
Höglander signed his ELC with the Canucks at the age of 19, which would ordinarily mean that he had to hit four pro seasons and/or 160 NHL games before he lost his waiver-exempt status. But Höglander saw his games-played total prorated due to the pandemic, and so his ‘magic number’ was reduced to 141 games.
Höglander played 56 games as a rookie, 60 more as a sophomore, and then 25 more early on in the 2022/23 season. At that point, the Canucks were able to demote Höglander to Abbotsford without needing to place him on waivers.
Had Höglander played one more game at any point in the 2022/23 campaign, however, that waiver exemption would have been lost. Which is why he was left in Abbotsford for the remainder of the year.
Come 2023/24, Höglander was on his fourth professional season and thus out of exemption.
All of which brings us neatly enough to the subject of Nils Åman.
After being let go by the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him in the sixth round of the 2020 Entry Draft, Åman was signed to his first NHL contract by the Canucks in June 2022 at the age of 22.
Having not been impacted by the COVID-truncation, Åman had to hit three professional seasons or 70 NHL games played before losing his waiver-exempt status.
Last season was his first pro season, but Åman played 68 NHL games as a rookie, leaving him on the cusp of waiver-eligibility.
When he didn’t make the Canucks out of Training Camp 2023, Åman was able to be sent down to Abbotsford without waivers. He proceeded to spend the first several weeks of the season there before a November 24 recall.
Åman was able to play his first game post-recall with no consequences. Same goes for his second. But as soon as Åman played Game #71 in his career, on November 28 against the Anaheim Ducks, he lost his waiver-exempt status and became eligible for waivers.
Now, if the Canucks want to return Åman to Abbotsford, he’ll have to be offered up to every other roster in the NHL first.
Which means, of course, that Åman won’t be going back down to Abbotsford anytime soon. There’s no way the Canucks didn’t carefully consider their options when deciding to recall Åman and play him for more than two games, and that decision more-or-less had to include them being comfortable with Åman spending the rest of the season in Vancouver.
As a 23-year-old center with size and skating ability who has proven capable of hanging in the big leagues, there’s little chance of Åman passing through waivers unclaimed at this point. To even risk it would be a case of asset mismanagement.
If the Canucks weren’t interested in making this a permanent recall, they could have called up someone like Sheldon Dries, already long past waiver nexemption. Instead, they chose to call Åman up and let his waiver-exempt status run out, which means they’ve got to be fairly committed to him sticking around for the rest of 2023/24.
It’s why Åman could be described as being “stuck” with the big league Canucks…though we doubt he minds, personally.
Even if no further injuries occur before Pius Suter returns to the lineup, expect Åman to at the very least hang around as the 13th forward in the lineup right through to April. The only other option now is a trip through waivers, and that very probably equates to a departure to another NHL organization.
Thus, Åman remains a Vancouver Canuck for the foreseeable future.

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