NHL waiver rules: The easy to understand guide

General Managers are always trying to make their team better, and one of the most straightforward ways to do this is by swapping players between your NHL team and AHL affiliate (minor league team).

However, to send a player to the minors often requires the team place him on ‘waivers’.

What are waivers in the NHL? Waivers is a transaction process required to move a player, who has met certain playing or experience requirements, from the NHL to the minor league level. When players are put on waivers any other NHL team may put in a ‘claim’ for the player and get them for their own roster. 

There are two different types of waivers – regular waivers and unconditional waivers. 

Waivers can be complex and involves many nuances so let’s look at how it works in the NHL more in-depth.

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Breaking down the NHL wavier rules

The best way to explain waivers is to get through a number of different questions and situations. So here we go!

How do waivers work in the NHL?

Generally, waivers is the process that a team must go through to send a player,  who have accrued a certain amount of professional playing time, from their NHL roster to their AHL affiliate. 

Technically, when an eligible player is transferred between the NHL and minors a formal paper transaction is made with the NHL – this is waivers. 

This transactions allows every other team in the NHL an opportunity to put a waiver claim on the player who is being shuffled from the NHL roster to the minor league affiliate. If this claim is accepted then the player will become part of a new NHL team, and they must go onto the NHL roster for that current season. 

This waivers process has become a strategic part of the operation of an NHL club and is a tool that sometimes favours the player and sometimes favours the NHL club.  As we look more in-depth at it the nuances its strategic nature will become clearer. 

How did waivers originate? 

Originally, waivers was designed as a process to allow a competitive balance between the NHL teams and for professional hockey players not to be buried in one teams organization for their entire career. 

The waivers process has been negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement (cba) between the players and owners, and make up the NHL waiver rules. 

Waivers allow older players an opportunity to play with another organization and not be caught or buried in the minor levels of hockey. When a player enters the league through – say the NHL draft – their player rights usually go to a team for seven years. 

However, as a player is entrenched in an organization they may not be good enough to play with a certain NHL team, but they could crack the lineup of a less talented team.

If you were a veteran player in the NHL wouldn’t you want to a chance to play for another team than be buried in one organization where you can’t get the opportunity? 

Ultimately for players, waivers helps generate movement for the skaters at the bottom of the NHL roster.

When do players get put on waivers? 

Each NHL team is allowed to sign 50 players to NHL contracts, but an NHL active roster is only allowed to have 23 players. 

So what happens to the other 27 players?

A number of things, but most of them will be assigned to play on one of the NHL’s minor league teams. If a player has played enough NHL games or has years of experience, then when an NHL team sends a player from the NHL to the minor leagues they have to put the player on ‘waivers’.

There are exceptions to this as some players are waiver exempt and some players do not have to pass through waivers before being sent to the minors, but, again, I will provide more detail on this below.

Players get put on waivers throughout the entire hockey year, but the greatest amount of activity happens right before the start of the NHL season.

At the start of the regular season:

At the start of each season an NHL will invite their entire roster (and more) to their training camp – many camps will have 60+ players. By the start of the NHL season a team can carry no more than 23 players.

So as the training camp goes on the team will send players who do not make the team to their minor league team. For players who have played enough seasons of professional hockey they will need to be a

Now, most players get sent down to the minors without having a claim put onto them, but there are players who are claimed each year.

Teams will often wait until the end of training camp to send their best players who need to pass through waivers and try to ‘sneak’ them through. They often have a decent idea of who will be claimed or not – and usually hope that a player will not be claimed.

Waivers throughout the year:

Players will also get to the minors throughout the year.

If a player is struggling at the NHL level they will eventually get sent to the minors, especially if there is someone playing great hockey in the minors.

Or, if a player gets injured a team will need to call up a player from the minors. However, when the injured player is ready to play again what does a team do? They will need to send a player back to the minors to create a roster spot.

At this point if the player has played more than 30 days of hockey in the NHL they will need to be put on waivers.

Why do teams put players on waivers?

1. Performance: As with everything in sports it relates to performance. If the coach does not believe you are helping the team win, they will try and bring another player in who they think will do better.

But, the easiest way for an NHL team to make a change is to send a player to their minor league team and to bring up a different skater.

2. Roster Flexibility: Teams may use regular waivers to free up a roster spot when they need to make room for another player, such as a call-up from the minors or a trade acquisition. Placing a player on waivers can also be a strategic move to gauge interest from other teams.

3. Contract Management: In some cases, teams may place a player on waivers with the hope of another team claiming him to relieve the team of the player’s contract and salary obligations. This is often done when a team wants to remove a player from their payroll.

How long does a player stay on waivers?

A player will be on waivers for 24 hours from the time they are put on waivers (48 hours if they are put on waivers on a Saturday or Sunday)

What does it mean to clear waivers? 

When a player clears waivers it means that no other team in the NHL has put a claim on them, and they can now report to the minor league team.

Often no other team wants the player being put on waivers, because if they claim them the rules state that the player must be put onto their NHL roster. This would often mean that the team would need to make space on their own roster via a trade or putting one of their own players on waivers. 

How does a player get claimed on waivers?

When a player is put on waivers for the 24 hour period every other team in the NHL has the opportunity to claim the player off waivers and bring them onto their NHL team.

If multiple teams put in a waiver claim on the same player, then the team with the lowest points in the NHL standing gets to claim the player.

If the waiver claim is made before November 1st of the hockey year, then the NHL standings from the previous year will be used, again with the lowest team in the standings getting first priority.

The team who gets the players has two obligations:

  1. They must take on the entirety of the players contract
  2. They must keep the player on their roster for the entirety of the season

What you will often see happen is that a player will get put on waivers not be claimed and then traded a few days later. Why would a team not claim a player they could get for free and instead trade for him only a few days later?

The main reason would be salary cap implications. A team has to claim the entirety of the player’s contract and they often will not have enough cap space to fit the player onto their roster. Therefore, they need to trade a player from their organization or have the other team take on some of the player’s salary to make it work with their salary cap.

The team winning the claim cannot simply put the players into the minors but must keep the player on their roster for the entirety of the season.

Is waivers ever a good thing for the player? 

Waivers are a good thing for some players. Everybody wants to play in the NHL over the minors.

However, some teams have really good rosters, whereas some teams do not have much depth.

So, a player could be the 24th best player on a top NHL team and get sent to the minors, or they could be the 18th best on a bottom level team and play in the NHL. Which would you rather do? Most players would want to be on the team they can play in the NHL.

This is not completely true as players will usually want to try and make the NHL with the organization they have signed with. However, if they have tried for a number of years to crack an NHL lineup and the organization does not believe in your skill level wouldn’t you want a shot somewhere else.

Of course you would! And so do the players in the minors. Sometimes they feel that they are as good as the guys on the NHL club and need to have a fresh start on another team. Waivers is a way that allows certain players a chance to join another organization.

Are all players eligible? Waiver exemptions.

As I said above, not all players are eligible for waivers. This is called being waiver exempt.

The two groups of players that cannot be put on waivers are:

  1. Players who are do not have enough professional experience 
  2. Players who have No Movement Clauses put into their contract

There is a convoluted formula of when a player is eligible or not, but for simplicity sake let’s look at an 18-year old signing an Entry Level contract. For a player in this circumstance once they have played 160 games or have 5 years of professional experience they will become waiver eligible.

Older players (ie. 27+) often will try to negotiate no trade or no movement clauses into their contracts. If they get a no movement clause in their contracts they cannot be put onto waivers by a team.

This does happen as some players who sign big lucrative contracts get put on waivers if they are not fulfilling the value of the contract. They will likely not be claimed, but a no movement clause protects them from being assigned to the minors.

Do waived players get paid?

Waiver players do get paid. However, players can have signed either one way or two way contracts. One way contracts allow they player to get paid the same amount whether they are in the NHL or minors. A two way contract will give the player a different salary (ie. significantly more) at the NHL level then in the minor leagues.

An NHL minimum salary is $700,000, whereas they would probably be paid around $100,000 in the minors. That is a significant difference!

Exempt Waivers for Emergency Recall 

In case of multiple injuries of players on your NHL roster a team is allowed to do an emergency recall of players on a short-term basis.

If your team falls below twelve forwards, six defensemen, or two goalies due to injuries on the NHL team they are allowed to call up a player to the NHL team. The player who is being recalled will be considered waiver exempt for the first 10 games of the recall. This means that they can be sent back to the minors without being subjected to the waivers wires. 

After the 10th game the recalled a players status will be changed and they will need waivers, if eligible, to be sent to the minors.


What are re-entry waivers? 

Re-entry waivers were a mechanism in the National Hockey League (NHL) that allowed teams to recall a player from the American Hockey League (AHL) or another minor league while potentially sharing the player’s salary and cap hit with the claiming team. However, it’s important to note that as of the 2013 NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), re-entry waivers were eliminated.

What is a conditioning assignment? 

A player can be sent to the minors on what is called a conditioning assignment. If they have been a healthy scratch for 5 games in a row or are coming off a long-term injury a player can be sent to the minors with full pay for a period of up-to 14 days without having to pass through waivers.

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