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Land of Hopes and Dreams

The week ahead will land dozens of players on their first NHL opening night roster while others face dreams deferred

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ /

SEATTLE -- Making an opening-night NHL roster might be a given for the likes of future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby or Stanley Cup winning goalie Jordan Binnington. But it is a dream come true for many rookies.

This time of year can also mean dreams deferred as NHL coaches make final roster cuts going in next week's regular-season start. The pucks drop for real Oct. 2.

Here's a quick checklist of a nerve-wracking week for players on the "bubble" or back end of rosters.

+ Teams have to trim their "active rosters" to 23 players before the first games. Many teams trim down to 25 to 27 players (maybe more if a team is opening the season in Europe). That means 60 to 100-some players will not get to opening night.

+ Many highly promising players have already been cut, either heading the team's American Hockey League affiliate or returning to the juniors teams they play for. Juniors, or top amateur leagues, are the Western Hockey League (including the U.S.-based teams, Seattle Thunderbirds, Everett Silvertips, Tri-City Americans, Spokane Chiefs and Portland WinterHawks), Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, U.S. Hockey League and more.

+ The players going to the AHL are part of the NHL team's allotment of 50 "Standard Player Contracts." These players either have signed a straightforward AHL contract or what is called a "two-way" contract, which means those players will make a certain pro-rated salary for AHL games (based on a maximum $70,000 for the season) or a higher pro-rated amount per NHL game (maximum $925,000 yearly pay). While likely disappointed, a good number of these players will be called up to live the NHL dream during the season.

"Sometimes these players get some NHL games because of injuries or they are rewarded for their performance with the AHL affiliate," says Ricky Olczyk, Seattle's assistant general manager. "There might be a need at a position or possibly giving a wakeup call to a player on the [NHL] active roster. 

In any case, it is certainly a trend that teams use more than the 23 players on the opening night, says Olczyk.

+ One note on players assigned to the AHL. Some players are young enough and early enough in their pro careers that they are protected, allowing a team to send them to the AHL affiliate straight away. Others have more seasons as pros and/or played a significant number of NHL games that they must pass through waivers before heading to the AHL team. The waiver period is 24 hours and many teams do dip into the waiver pool because winning teams with respected development programs often turn out more skilled players than they can keep on the top club roster. 

+ As for the recently cut juniors players, they actually cannot be placed in the AHL. If they don't make the active roster as 18-year-olds, then the player is returned to their juniors club due to an agreement the NHL has with the juniors leagues. There are supporters and opponents of this agreement, but the overall concept is these younger players will be better served to play one more year of juniors rather than advance to the AHL, which is effectively a league of men, many of whom are NHL-experienced players either heading up or down on their career arcs.

+ OK, so recently cut players might have dreams dashed for the short term but hope for future seasons. Those in the AHL await a break during this 2019-20. The promising juniors can look to playing for their original teams until season's end, then maybe get a call-up to the big club once the junior team is finished with any postseason play.

Olczyk says some players let the disappoint of a NHL roster cut affect their play, at least for a week or two. That includes the 60 to 100-some player getting the bad news in the coming days. Sometimes those who come closest to wearing the NHL jersey for the first, only to have it snatched, might be most adversely affected. Olczyk of course encourages all young players to stay positive, work hard and get back to a attitude homeostasis, knowing that roster reinforcements are inevitable in today's NHL.

+ There is one more category of players to discuss. Some top draft choices will make the opening night roster, then be allowed to play up to nine NHL games without it being counted as an official NHL contract year. If those players participate in a 10th NHL game this season-No. 1 overall draft choice Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils is a highly likely such player-then that player will enter future free agency one year sooner than if he plays nine NHL games or less. A player such as Chicago's Kirby Dach might a candidate to play no more than the nine-game limit, returning to his junior team and entering free agency one year later than Hughes even though they were drafted in the same year. 

+ So, the dreams deferred concept has one more wrinkle. On game days, teams submit 20 names for the "game roster," including two goalies and 18 skaters. That leaves three players as "healthy scratches" but they are still up with the big club, traveling and practicing and likely getting into an NHL game soon.

NHL front offices will be hard at work in the coming days to set those opening night rosters. Alexandra Mandrycky, Seattle's director of hockey administration and analytics expert, says there will much debate about who to keep, who the team might pick up on waivers and who might be better served with more playing time in the AHL or juniors.

"There will lots of opinions in the room," she says. "Scouts will be offering what they saw last season, analytics people will be making a case. It's similar to deciding to draft or who gets called up later [or maybe even sooner] in the season."  

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