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Trapped in the box: Why NHL's waiver rules need reworking

Many talented but developing players such as Jamie Oleksiak of the Stars are often healthy scratches because their teams can't risk losing them off waivers if they are sent to the minors.

Finally, Jamie Oleksiak caught a break.

After watching 16 of his team’s first 20 games from the press box, Oleksiak (photo above) was inserted into the Dallas Stars lineup on Saturday when veteran Jordie Benn couldn’t go because of an illness. He made the most of the opportunity, too, winning a lopsided fight against Buffalo’s Nicolas Deslauriers and drawing a penalty that kickstarted the Dallas offense toward a 3–0 victory.

The waiting hasn’t been easy for the 22-year-old blueliner who was the Stars’ first-round draft pick in 2011. A solid skater with tremendous size (6' 7", 260 pounds) and the ability to make a reliable first pass, Oleksiak was expected to mature into a solid shutdown defender. He still might, but it hasn’t happened yet. And that’s a problem because he’s not one of Dallas’s top-six options when everyone is healthy. And that means he’s not playing.

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“[Jyrki] Jokipakka’s playing [ahead of Oleksiak] because he’s played better, and it’s as easy as that,” Dallas coach Lindy Ruff told the Dallas Morning News. “At this stage of the game, after 20 games, he's been the guy that has pushed through.

“We’ve said it all along, it’s been hard to have them sitting,” Ruff said of Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth, a 23-year-old who has played just twice this season. “It's important that these guys stay ready and step in and help us win games.”

Oleksiak might get another chance on tonight if defenseman Jason Demers, who was banged up against the Sabres, is unable to go. Or he might not. But Oleksiak understands his place at the moment.

“My job is to be ready when I come into the lineup,” he said, echoing his coach after the win over the Sabres. “I just have to come in and play a simple defensive game.”

“Being ready” is a reasonable request to make of a veteran who is happy to extend his career as a seventh defenseman or 13th forward. It’s somewhat less than ideal for a player with such massive potential to spend so much time watching from the press box.

And Oleksiak is not alone. In fact, he’s just one of 17 players aged 25 or under who have sat out at least nine games so far this season, victims of a system that is weighted heavily in favor of the teams.

Jordan Weal, who has finished among the top-five AHL scorers in each of the past two seasons dressed for the Kings on Sunday after being scratched for 17 of the team’s first 19 games.

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Dylan McIlrath, the 10th pick in 2010, has been scratched 16 times by the Rangers.

Jarred Tinordi, Montreal’s first-round selection in 2010, has been a healthy scratch for every single game the Canadiens have played this season.

And Frankie Corrado, who was picked up by the Maple Leafs from Vancouver earlier this season, has yet to see action for Toronto, sitting out 15 straight.

The problem is waivers, a system designed to prevent teams from stuffing their minor league affiliate with NHL-ready talent. It does this by creating a mechanism for other teams to cherry-pick those players before they’re sent down. 

There are exemptions. Generally speaking, teams are free to assign and recall developing players at will until certain conditions set in. But once a player hits the threshold number of games played based on his age and the number of years since he signed his first NHL contract, he loses the exemption and must be exposed to waivers. (Hockeyscap has a valuable FAQ on waiver matters here.)

And that’s the problem for teams like the Stars. Oleksiak and Nemeth aren’t reliable enough to play on a regular basis, but they’re too good to risk losing on waivers. The same is true for Weal, McIlrath, Tinordi and the rest.

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The system is crying out for change since this practice flies against the anti-talent hording principle of waivers. Unfortunately, that change isn’t coming any time soon.

“I’m sure [the NHLPA] would love something like that, but I don’t see it as something [the league] would be interested in at all,” one team executive told “No, it’s not a perfect system and it’s unfortunate for the players who get stuck in no-man’s land but it’s in each team’s best interests to protect their assets for as long as possible. If that means sitting them, that’s their call.”

Negotiating a system that focuses on development and opportunity over asset retention is something the union needs to pursue when the next CBA talks come around. Until then, though, each team maintains the freedom to play, or not play, these young athletes as they see fit.

And while they do that, players like Oleksiak will have to settle for keeping themselves ready, and hoping that their next opportunity isn’t too far off.