Once upon a time, if you were scoring a prize from NHL waivers, chances are it was on the eve of each NHL regular season through a process known as the annual NHL Waiver Draft, which kept teams from hoarding established NHL talent in the minors.
That was when each team submitted a list of protected players on the same day, exposing all "unprotected" players to waivers, while the whole league took turns picking away at the refuse pile.
That's how in 2003, players like Curtis Joseph, Pavel Bure, Robert Reichel, Brian Boucher, Claude Lemieux and Arturs Irbe were all available on waivers on the same day. (Trivia note: Current Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was also left unprotected by the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim that year as his unremarkable playing career wound down.)
Non-playoff teams got first crack in the opening round. Then all 30 teams got a shot in each subsequent round until every team declined further dining at the waiver buffet. No team could lose more than three players, and in the opening round no team could claim players from within their own division.
Now Waivers Requires Year-Round Vigilance
But the NHL works a little differently now, in part to guarantee that deserving potential NHL talent is not hidden in the minors for emergency use. The NHL Waiver Draft is no more, but exposing players to waivers is a year-round proposition. Managing depth with a 23-man roster includes navigating Injured Reserve, waiver-exempt youngsters, the NHL's 50-contract limit and salary cap, and your coach's preferences.
That's how already in 2011-12, Taylor Chorney has been claimed off waivers twice, the New York Islanders have willfully lost a 24-goal scorer to the Calgary Flames in Blake Comeau, and the Philadelphia Flyers have lost a solid defensive forward in Andreas Nodl to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Islanders with Comeau may be the most curious case so far: Here is a team that is scoring less than two goals per game -- lowest in the league -- giving up a player who tallied 24 goals in 2010-11, 18 alone at even strength, in mostly third-line minutes.
But Comeau was without a point through 16 games, a healthy scratch in two others. According to multiple reports, the Islanders had shopped his $2.5 million salary around the league without receiving an offer of a pick nor anything but the salary baggage in return. So they let him go for nothing. He made it past just two other teams before the Flames wisely took a chance on him.
If the Islanders entered the season with the plan to give Comeau less than 16 games -- and very little special teams time -- before dumping him, you'd think they'd have shopped him over the summer or even taken him to salary arbitration to tell him just how little they thought he was worth. Either GM Garth Snow or coach Jack Capuano (or both) soured on him before the season or within the season's first month as Comeau and most of his teammates struggled.
Thought not losing quite as an important asset, the Flyers too exhibited curious roster management in losing Nodl, whom Flyers GM Paul Holmgrem placed on waivers "to gauge interest" in the player. (Consider that interest firmly confirmed.)
While the Islanders appear to have intentionally shed a salary who didn't fit into their plans the way several unproven prospects do, the Flyers appear to have lost Nodl because they need to reallocate assets elsewhere:
The Flyers have been at the 50-contract limit ever since Sean Couturier played in his eleventh NHL game at the end of October. With the injuries to Chris Pronger, Erik Gustafsson, and Andreas Lilja, the Flyers have been forced to use Kevin Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon on defense, and appear likely to rely on them in the future.
The Flyers don't seem comfortable with that, so they are probably looking to make a move for a defenseman. But they can not acquire someone without losing a contract too. Having Nodl claimed by the Hurricanes allows them to trade a draft pick for a player.
But why is it even necessary? Because the Flyers kept Matt Walker in the NHL instead of Oskars Bartulis until they learned that they couldn't afford Walker. Now, both are in the AHL and unable to fill in for an injured Chris Pronger without being exposed to re-entry waivers.
Meanwhile, for a team that has been bottom five in the league the past three seasons, the Islanders have lost a contributor on waivers each of the past three seasons: Nate Thompson, waived to make room for an enforcer, has become a reliable defensive forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Rob Schremp didn't work out any better in Atlanta than he did with the Islanders or the Oilers (and now he's in Sweden), but he at least put up 22 points in 45 games for the Isles before being waived.
Managing an NHL roster is more complex than ever in the salary cap era, and injuries can ruin even the best-laid plans. The re-entry rule means you can lose a well-paid veteran to waivers on recall -- and be docked half his cap hit in the process.
At least the case of Chorney is a little easier to figure out: He's a depth defenseman even for the Oilers, who waived him at a time when the Blues were injury-ravaged and needed blueline insurance, and the Blues put him back on waivers after just two games of emergency duty. The Oilers reclaimed him, sent him to the AHL Oklahoma City Barons as originally intended, and have already recalled him once.
In Chorney's case, a borderline NHLer is assured of his shot at sticking around. In the cases of Comeau and Nodl, an established NHLer is lost ... for nothing.