Why the timing is a little tricky on any Phil Kessel contract decision with the Canucks

Photo credit:© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
2 months ago
We here at CanucksArmy are still feeling The Thrill ™, but if you’re already getting a little tired of Phil Kessel-related content, feel free to think of this article as more of a general explainer on late-season signings, because it will serve that function just as well.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or so, you may have missed the news that Kessel is in Abbotsford skating with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate in the hopes of signing an NHL contract with Vancouver in the near future.
Based on his first outing, Kessel will definitely need a little bit of time to get back up to speed…but the Canucks are already running low on time to make a contractual decision. In this article, we’ll explain why the timing is so tricky.
It all comes down to the Trade Deadline.
Following the Trade Deadline each year, the 23-player roster limits go away, and teams are allowed to carry as many players as they can under the cap, with the restriction of being limited to four post-deadline, non-emergency recalls.
It might be tempting, then, to suggest that the Canucks simply wait until after the Trade Deadline has passed and then sign Kessel, thus adding him to the roster without having to remove anyone else from it to make room.
Unfortunately, that won’t work. A free agent must be signed to a contract before the Trade Deadline in order to be eligible to play in the playoffs that season. If the Canucks really want Kessel to be “the ultimate playoff black ace,” they’re going to need to sign him on or prior to March 8, 2024 – a date that is fewer than three weeks away at this point.
Which, as our own Jeff Paterson pointed out earlier in the week, could be a bit of an issue. The Canucks’ roster is currently maxed out at 23/23. That number does include a recalled Jett Woo, currently holding the injured Carson Soucy’s spot on the roster. But if the Canucks want to both add Kessel to their pre-deadline roster and activate Soucy, they will have to demote both Woo and someone else, and that someone else will require waivers (Woo won’t unless he’s up for 30 days.) That someone would likely be one of Mark Friedman, Phil di Giuseppe, Nils Åman, or Sam Lafferty, and none of those are players who the Canucks would be looking to expose to the rest of the league this close to the postseason, where depth is necessary.
Now, if Kessel hasn’t played in ten months, why not start him off in Abbotsford and then make him one of those four post-deadline call-ups, or even potentially wait to the end of the regular season, at which point unlimited recalls are allowed?
As far as game action goes, Kessel should almost certainly start out with at least a few AHL matches at this point. He’ll need something more than practice eventually, and forcing him into the NHL lineup within the next few weeks might be tough to justify.
But to assign Kessel to the AHL, he’d have to pass through waivers, too. Normally, waivers is a complicated process to explain that requires a lengthy retelling of the rules, but not here: suffice it to say that there is a threshold for experience past which a player always needs waivers to be demoted, and Kessel, as a veteran of 1286 NHL games, is obviously well over that threshold.
Some may not think there’s much risk of Kessel being claimed after going this long without a contract, but there would be some risk.
Forget about the option of a conditioning stint, by the way. A player must be on the active NHL roster before being sent on a conditioning stint, so that doesn’t help the Canucks with the waivers dance.
What the Canucks could do is sign Kessel to an AHL contract now, have him get into game shape and then get into as many Abbotsford games as possible before the deadline, and to then sign him to a contract right at the deadline.
Should the Canucks’ roster still be full up at that point, someone will still need to be waived. And if that someone is Kessel, waiting that long to do it – until after he’s back in game-shape – probably increases the odds of his being claimed. In fact, waiving any of the potential Canucks waivees closer to the deadline probably increase their odds of being claimed, as the teams considering plucking them would be on the cusp of unlimited roster space.
But what the option of signing Kessel to an AHL contract for three weeks now, and then an NHL contract on March 8 really buys the Canucks is time, more so than options.
The only thing that can really allow for the Canucks to both add Kessel to their active roster before the Trade Deadline and not have to risk losing anyone from the roster is through the involvement of the injured reserve.
For example, if Soucy encounters another setback in his recovery and stays on IR until after the deadline, the issue resolves itself. Woo can be sent down, Kessel can take his spot on the active roster, and then Soucy can return after the 23-player limits go away.
Or, alternately, Soucy could return, but another player could hit the IR in the interim, and the Canucks would wind up with a similar result.
By signing Kessel to an AHL deal now and an NHL deal later, the Canucks can at least allow themselves to wait and see and not make any tough decisions until they absolutely have to. But there’s risk with any wait and see approach, and all probabilities will have to be balanced…especially since there’s also the possibility of someone else being added to the roster between now and the deadline, further complicating the whole scenario.
And, of course, this is all dependent on Kessel actually willing to play games in the AHL to begin with. His currently skating with the Abbotsford crew is good evidence that he will be, but if he does, they’ll be his first AHL games since 2007.
We guess what we’re saying here is that the Canucks have options, but they don’t have long to settle on those options. That the deadline to sign Kessel comes the literally the day before unlimited space for him opens up on the roster is both unfortunate and intentional. It’s a rule put in place specifically to prevent teams from stashing free agents away all season just to add them as ringers after the deadline.
But maybe the Canucks can pull something similar off all the same, if they play and time their cards right.

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