When Can NHL Teams Make Trades? 

Trades are one of the best things about following the NHL. Trades are complex and have many rules around them. Specifically, what are the rules around when an NHL team can make a trade? 

When can NHL teams make trades? NHL teams can make trades every day of the year except for nine days in December referred to as the NHL Christmas Trade Freeze. As well, trades are allowed after the March trade deadline, but those traded players are not allowed to play in the playoffs for their new team. 

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Let’s look at the two calendar times per year that restrict trades, and the one financial consideration that limits trades.  We will, also, look at the two times when most NHL trades happen during the year.

NHL trades – 365 days a year (with a few exceptions)

As with all professional sports the NHL is a 365 day a year business. There is always something happening and some sort of news, seemingly, trickles out every day. 

NHL news, as expected, gets quiet for about 6 weeks from mid-July to the end of August, but other than that the business of hockey is in full swing. 

When asked if they are happy with their roster, a general manager of a team will usually say, ‘I’m always looking to make my team better’. 

Even if the answer sounds cliche, it is actually true. 

NHL teams are allowed to manage and change their roster 365 days a year without restriction except for a couple of notable exceptions.  

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Sidney Crosby: This guy is never getting traded

The few exceptions that stop NHL GMS from making trades are:

  • NHL Christmas Trade Freeze
  • NHL Trade Deadline
  • Salary Cap Restrictions 

What is the NHL Christmas Trade Freeze? 

Teams can make NHL trades any time of the year with the exception of a small trade freeze window around the Christmas holidays.

The NHL Christmas trade freeze happens over a 9 day period from Dec. 18th to Dec. 27th where no player can be traded or sent to the minors through waivers. 

Essentially, this gives players a small period to relax around the holidays, where they do not need to worry about having to move their life to another part of North America. 

As much as we enjoy trade rumours and playing armchair GM for our favorite team, players do not. Although trades don’t happen very often it is stressful on the players knowing that they can be traded at any time. 

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This is why so many players, when they can, negotiate No Trade Clauses into their contracts. 

However, other than that small trade freeze the NHL is a 365 day business for making trades. 

There are a few restrictions that limit the number of trades made, most notably the salary cap (we will get to that soon), but, first, let’s look at the most popular one: NHL Trade Deadline.

How does the NHL Trade Deadline work?

The biggest key date for NHL Trades is the NHL Trade Deadline that happens at end of February/beginning of March every year.  This is the busiest time for trades as teams are preparing their rosters for the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs. 

But above, didn’t it say that NHL teams can trade all year so why is this called the Trade Deadline?

Well, yes, they can but the NHL Trade Deadline needs a big of clarification. 

The trade deadline signals the end of trades for players that can still be acquired by your team that can then play for you in the Stanley Cup playoffs

Any player that is acquired after the Trade Deadline cannot play for that team in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Can you trade after the NHL trade deadline? 

NHL teams are still allowed to trade after the NHL Trade Deadline, but any player traded after that time will not be permitted to play in the NHL playoffs for that upcoming season. 

This basically kills all trade talk and actual transactions, because rosters are set for the playoffs and there is no incentive to make a trade until the playoffs are over.

On rare occasions a couple of non-playoff teams will make a minor trade or a playoff team may have a rash of injuries and just need a warm body to help them to the end of the regular season.

Salary Cap Restrictions Prevent More Trades

A team cannot trade for a player if the contract that they are acquiring will put them over the NHL’s salary cap. 

Each team is allotted $81.5 million (2021-2022) to spend on player’s salaries and not a dime more – this is the salary cap. If they try to add a contract to their roster that puts them over the salary cap the NHL will reject the transaction to the roster (including trade). 

Now, it never happens that a team registers a trade with the NHL and, after the fact, the NHL terminates the deal because a team has gone over the salary cap. 

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However, dozens and dozens of trades between NHL GMS cannot be worked out because the money does not work for both sides. In other words, a team cannot make the trade because it will put them over the salary cap. 

It is hard for GMs to find players or a combination of players to trade where the value they bring on the ice matches with the salaries the player’s make. 

So, even though we don’t read about the salary cap as a reason that a trade wasn’t made, it is one of the main reasons that restricts more trades from being made in the NHL. 

Before the salary cap was instituted there were many, many, more trades in the NHL.  

When do most trades take place? 

Most NHL trades happen during two periods of time: right before the NHL trade deadline and during the NHL draft weekend. 

NHL Trade Deadline

As mentioned above NHL teams are allowed to trade after the NHL Trade Deadline, however those players traded for cannot play for their team in the playoffs. 

Therefore, will acquire all of the player’s they want on their team before the NHL Trade Deadline so those players can play for them in the playoffs. 

The NHL Trade Deadline happens either at the end of February/beginning of March. 

By this point in the season teams have a good idea of whether they have a chance to make the playoffs or not. 

So what happens is all of the teams that are not going to make the playoffs trade off their players to teams who are most likely going to the playoffs for draft picks. 

There are not many player to player swaps, but mostly a player for a draft pick. The better the player the higher the draft pick. 

Trades at the NHL Draft

Most of the biggest trades of the NHL year happen right before or at the NHL entry draft. 

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Teams have the most financial flexibility at this point
  • Teams have the most assets to trade (picks and players)
  • It brings all the NHL’s general managers together
  • It happens right before free agency, so GMs want to get most of their roster in place before 
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Watching all of the next stars being drafted at the NHL draft is fun, but what is even better are the trade rumors and actual trades. Young draftees are going to have an impact years down the road, but trades will have an impact in only a few months. 

What happens every year is that commissioner Gary Bettman will stand at the point and say ‘we have a trade to announce’. And, the hockey world holds its collective breath waiting to hear who has been traded. 

And, who is often traded is a top star or stars. Exciting!!!!

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