Longing for the Old-School Waiver Draft

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This time last week, NHL teams were preparing for the start of the regular season in all the usual ways. Final cuts were being made. Last-minute contracts were being signed. Opening-night starting goalies were being named.

And, in what’s become an annual tradition, we got one last flurry of moves on the waiver wire. Since the collective bargaining agreement dictates that some players can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, the final days before the regular season always sees a bunch of last-minute attempts to sneak guys through. This year was no different, with a handful of players switching teams and many more passing through unclaimed.

And that’s all well and good. But there used to be a better way. It ran from 1977 to 2003, and it was called the waiver draft. And it was great, because anything involving a draft is by definition going to be fun. The entry draft is fun; your fantasy hockey draft is fun; expansion drafts are just about the most fun thing ever. And the waiver draft was fun, too, which is presumably why it had to die.

But for 27 years, hockey fans could look forward to an (almost) annual leaguewide draft of has-beens and never-weres, all held just a few days before the start of the regular season. And it was magic — a world of wasted picks, shady backroom deals, and “I didn’t know that guy was still playing” wonder. Let’s take a look back at some of the highlights.

(Much of the research for this piece comes from a wonderful blog called Historical Hockey Stats & Trivia, which appears to no longer be active but is a great site to visit if you’re a hockey fan looking to have your productivity for the day shot to hell.)

The 1970s: An Origin Story

From the mid-’50s until 1975, the NHL had what it called the intra-league draft. It typically took place in June and was meant to promote competitive balance by forcing the league’s better teams to make some of their talent available to the bottom-feeders. Each team could protect a set number of players, with the rest being available to the rest of the league in a draft format, with picks going in reverse order of the standings.

The intra-league draft was occasionally busy, but by the mid-’70s it had become an afterthought, largely due to a financial crisis brought on by the advent of the rival WHA. The draft was finally scrapped in 1976. But the need for something similar lingered, as the league’s competitive-balance issues only got worse. That was bad for the NHL, because nobody wants to buy tickets to watch cannon fodder, and bad for certain players, because depth guys on the top teams couldn’t get ice time.

And so, in 1977, the waiver draft was born. Teams could protect 18 skaters and two goalies, with first-year pros exempted.1 Teams would draft in reverse order of the previous year’s standings, and would pay a fee for each player they took.

The new draft didn’t exactly get off to a hot start; only three players were taken in 1977, none especially notable. The 1978 draft wasn’t much better, with only five selections, although the day was notable for a series of controversies surrounding the Canadiens. The reigning champs, in the middle of a four-year Cup streak, were accused of using loopholes to protect players, and also tried to work a sneaky trade-back deal involving the draft’s top pick, Pierre Bouchard, that was overruled by the league.

The WHA merger wiped out the 1979 draft, but everyone agreed to give the whole thing another try in the ’80s, so long as the Habs would promise to stop screwing around.

The 1980s: Demise of the Dynasties

Over the course of the 1980s, the waiver draft went from a novelty that had been tried only a couple of times to a standard part of the hockey calendar, and NHL GMs got more comfortable with the format as the decade wore on. This was the era when we started to see some recognizable names showing up on the drafted list, although it was rarely because of what the player was accomplishing on the ice.

For example, future Rangers coach and (after that) controversial head disciplinarian Colin Campbell was plucked in the 1980 draft, going from the Oilers to the Canucks, which made him a member of the presumably exclusive club of players to be picked in four different types of drafts: the NHL entry draft, the WHA amateur draft, an expansion draft, and a waiver draft.

Boston’s John Wensink and Quebec’s Curt Brackenbury were taken that year, too, establishing what would eventually become a theme: teams using the waiver draft to replenish their enforcer ranks. Wensink was taken again in 1981, along with another future NHL head coach: Terry Murray, who went from one team he’d someday coach, the Flyers, to another, the Capitals. (Murray famously got the job in Washington in 1989-90 as a replacement for his fired brother, Bryan.) But the biggest names taken that year were two members of the Canadiens dynasty. Yvon Lambert was picked by the Sabres, while future Hall of Famer Serge Savard had his 15-year career in Montreal ended by a waiver-wire selection by the Jets; he’d play two years in Winnipeg before retiring.

While those guys were all key picks in their own right, the undisputed MVP of the early-’80s waiver draft was winger Jeff Brubaker, who was taken four times in four drafts between 1981 and 1984, part of a nine-year NHL career that saw him play for seven teams, presumably because chanting “BRRRUUUUU” was so much fun. The 1984 draft also saw the Penguins use the first overall pick on former 50-goal scorer — and charter member of the NHL’s Brady Andersons club — Wayne Babych; needless to say, that would not end up being the most successful first overall draft pick the Pens used that year.

Much as it had done to the Canadiens five years earlier, the 1986 waiver draft signaled the end of the Islanders’ dynasty, as the first and fifth picks saw Bob Bourne and Clark Gillies picked by the Kings and Sabres, respectively. That wasn’t all those two players would end up having in common; years later, their kids would get married. The 1987 draft saw the selection of a two-time 50-goal scorer (longtime Kings star Charlie Simmer, who went from Boston to Pittsburgh) and a former first overall pick (Doug Wickenheiser, who went from St. Louis to Vancouver via Hartford). It was also another good year for enforcers, as picks were used on Willi Plett, Ed Hospodar, Glen Cochrane, and Kevin Maguire.2

The 1988 draft saw some reasonably good players change hands, including Minnesota using the first pick on Stew Gavin, a defensive forward who’d go on to help the North Stars on their 1991 run to the Cup final. But perhaps the most memorable pick didn’t come until Round 6, when Toronto grabbed veteran defenseman Brad Marsh from the Flyers. “Marshy” would go on to become a fan favorite on some terrible Maple Leafs teams.

The decade closed with more tough guys, including Craig Coxe and Nick Kypreos, as well as a pick that spelled the end of a neat bit of trivia. When the Nordiques took Greg Adams from the Canucks with the first pick in 1989, it broke up the only instance in NHL history of two players with the exact same name playing for the same team at the same time.

By the end of the decade, NHL GMs were starting to figure out loopholes in the system. Days before the 1989 draft, the Flyers traded Keith Acton and Pete Peeters to the Jets, who protected them. Days after, the Jets sent those same two players back to Philadelphia. It was an obvious case of collusion — the Flyers gave the Jets a draft pick for their troubles — and the league reacted by fining both teams and changing the rules to prevent teams from reacquiring traded players in the days around the waiver draft.

The 1990s: The Expansion Era

The ’90s started off much as the ’80s had ended, with a mix of tough guys and “oh yeah, I remember him” veterans; the first two picks of the 1990 draft were Wayne Van Dorp and Dr. Randy Gregg. But by 1992, a new dynamic had emerged. The NHL was undergoing a wave of expansion that would see five teams added from 1991 to 1993 and four more join them by 2000. The league’s expansion draft rules ensured that those teams would be awful, and that meant that even the dregs available in the waiver draft could represent a potential first-line player to a brand-new franchise.

So in 1992, the first two picks went to the expansion Lightning and Senators, who used them to pick Adam Creighton and Norm Maciver, respectively. Creighton scored 19 goals in Tampa Bay’s debut season, good for third on the team, while Maciver led the Senators in scoring. Meanwhile, the second-year Sharks took Igor Larionov; the future Hall of Famer would have two solid seasons in San Jose before being traded to the Red Wings, where he’d be a crucial piece of their back-to-back Cup wins.

The Senators were back at it in 1993, scooping veteran forward (and worldwide consecutive consonant record-holder) Dave McLlwain from the Maple Leafs, while the expansion Mighty Ducks added Garry Valk. Gary Bettman’s first lockout pushed the 1994 draft into 1995, when defenseman Chris Joseph began to stake his claim as his generation’s Jeff Brubaker, being picked for the first of three times in the decade.

By the mid-’90s, the first batch of expansion teams had largely gotten past their growing pains and settled into mediocrity, and the waiver draft went back to largely being the domain of the enforcer, with names like Kelly Chase, Jim McKenzie, Bill Huard, Mick Vukota, and Mike Peluso changing teams.

The 1998 draft brought the next wave of expansion, as the Predators made Zdeno Ciger their first pick. Two years later, another expansion team, the Minnesota Wild, would make Ciger the first pick of the 2000 waiver draft. He’s the only player to go first overall twice, and he was equally productive for both of the teams that chose him — he never played a game for either. He’d been playing in Europe since 1996, and wouldn’t return to the NHL until joining the Rangers as a free agent in 2001.

The 2000s: The End

By the turn of the century, NHL franchises were in full-on panic mode over player salaries, which had been rising sharply since the mid-’90s. That panic would eventually lead to the 2004-05 lockout, which shut down the league for an entire season and resulted in the introduction of the salary cap. But years before that, NHL GMs started realizing that the waiver draft could represent an opportunity to unload overpaid veterans. In what would mark the final few seasons of the draft’s existence, some much bigger names started to show up on the unprotected lists.

That was certainly the case in 2001, when we saw what would go down as perhaps the biggest pick in waiver draft history. Despite owning two Cup rings and coming off eight years as the Red Wings starter, Chris Osgood found himself exposed after Detroit acquired Dominik Hasek in an offseason trade. Despite a contract that paid him almost $8 million over the next two seasons, Osgood was snapped up by the Islanders with the draft’s first pick. He’d split the next three years between the Islanders and Blues before returning to the Red Wings after the lockout ended.

Osgood wasn’t the only big name to move at the 2001 draft. The Blue Jackets grabbed Kirk Muller from Dallas, then immediately traded him right back, the Bouchard rule apparently having long been forgotten. And a future Hall of Famer switched teams when the Blackhawks picked up Phil Housley from the Flames as compensation for Calgary’s selection of Jamie Allison.

A relatively quiet 2002 draft was highlighted by the Thrashers taking Stephane Robidas as the first overall pick, making him quite possibly the last active NHL player who can claim to be a waiver draft alumnus. But the 2003 draft brought some fireworks, with 20 players switching teams. Perhaps the biggest was Chris Mason, a former Predator who rejoined the organization after being plucked from the Panthers; he’d go on to become the starter in Nashville for several years after the lockout.

But while Mason was a big pick in hindsight, there could have been bigger ones, as NHL teams flooded the unprotected list with well-known names. Theo Fleury was available, as were Claude Lemieux and Pavel Bure. There was also talk of big-money veterans like Keith Tkachuk, Mark Messier, and even Jaromir Jagr being made available, although none of those players ultimately were. But the biggest name on the list was yet another Red Wings goalie: Curtis Joseph, who been Detroit’s starter in 2002-03 but was set to lose that job to the returning Hasek. Joseph wanted to be picked, but no NHL teams took the bait, and he ended up backing up the Dominator for one unhappy season before hitting free agency.

The 2004 waiver draft never happened, because the 2004 season didn’t happen. When the league finally emerged from its season-killing work stoppage a year later, with a salary cap and plenty of on-ice rule changes in place, virtually nobody noticed that the new CBA had eliminated the waiver draft.

A decade later, the NHL has settled nicely into a waiver-draft-free existence. Fans have grown used to their daily noon updates from any number of insiders, alerting them to which players have been put on waivers that day, and which have passed through or been claimed from the day before. The new system works. It’s fine.

But here’s hoping that the waiver draft makes a return someday. Until that time comes, we’ll always have Jeff Brubaker and Chris Joseph, Norm Maciver and Zdeno Ciger, a few dozen or so certified heavyweights, and even the occasional Chris Osgood. R.I.P., waiver draft. You’ll always go first overall in our hearts. (Then be immediately traded back for future considerations.)

Filed Under: NHL, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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