The 2021 National Hockey League regular season starts on Wednesday. All 31 teams need to be cap and roster compliant by Tuesday at 5 PM ET. All 31 teams also need to have a four-to-six player taxi squad with at least one goaltender in addition to their active roster of 20-to-23 players. Sending a player to a taxi squad is equivalent to sending a player down to the minor league, which means players who are not exempt from waivers need to be placed on waivers before being demoted. The waiver process requires a player to be on it for 24 hours where other teams can claim them if they wish to do so. Only after those 24 hours can they be transferred to a taxi squad or AHL team.
This all means that there are a lot of players placed on waivers today (89 to be exact); and the New Jersey Devils have done the same. As reported by Corey Masisak on Twitter, the Devils have put five players on waivers: Nick Merkley, Ben Street, Colton White, Josh Jacobs and Brandon Gignac. Four of these players are not surprising to be essentially cut from the team. Gignac has not participated in any of the scrimmages, so it would have been more of a surprise if he was not cut. Street is an AHL veteran and the Devils have too many forwards to warrant including him. White and Jacobs had a long shot to make the Devils blueline even last season and it got progressively longer the more the Devils added defensemen. Merkley is the odd man out for, well, being the odd man out.
Merkley was acquired as part of the return from the Taylor Hall trade back in December 2019. He was called up for four games and left a memorable mark. He did quite well when he joined Binghamton. And after right winger Joey Anderson was dealt, it seemed like Merkley would have a good shot to make the New Jersey roster. Especially after a fairly productive loan in Finland in the back half of 2020. It is now clear that he did not do well enough in camp. Whether he will be a member of the taxi squad or get sent to Binghamton remains to be seen.
I do think Merkley has the quality to be a bottom-six right winger for a couple of NHL teams. In that sense, it is a risk that he is on waivers. A team could claim him to add to their winger depth. However, if there is a day to take that risk, then this is the one. A lot of players, including several much better than Merkley, are now on waivers too. He could pass through as others may get more attention. It is also not as simple to add a player from waivers as it would be in past seasons. Claiming a waiver-eligible player means the team claims them; if they want to move them to their taxi squad or AHL team, then they would have to go through waivers again. A claim also means the player has to travel to the new team and go through any testing and quarantine protocols before they can actually join the squad, too.
What is also surprising as Merkley being on waivers is who from New Jersey is not on waivers. 23-year old right winger Nathan Bastian is not on waivers. Given that Merkley and Bastian played the same position, it is fair to think Bastian won a battle in camp for a roster spot. Congratulations to Bastian for winning that battle. This does not mean Bastian will be immediately in the lineup or will be in it for all of this coming season. Room will need to be made for when Nico Hischier is healthy (which is soon) and especially when Jesper Bratt arrives (which may be a couple of weeks). He needs to keep showing the coaches why he belongs in the NHL. Until then, he is in the NHL and he could very well be selected for the team’s season opener on Thursday against Boston.
Additionally, 28-year old goaltender Scott Wedgewood is not on waivers. With the news of Corey Crawford retiring, the Devils now need a goaltender to join Mackenzie Blackwood as the team’s main goaltending tandem. The competition would be between Wedgewood and Gilles Senn. Wedgewood ended up taking more minutes in scrimmages - he played all of yesterday’s scrimmage opposite Blackwood. As Senn is exempt from waivers, it is likely that he will be the goaltender on the taxi squad and Wedgewood will be Blackwood’s backup. This will be the case barring injury or New Jersey acquiring a goaltender (of which there are a few on waivers).
In terms of defense, 30-year old defenseman Matt Tennyson and 26-year old defenseman Connor Carrick are also not on waivers. Carrick has been a #6/#7 defenseman since joining New Jersey. His time may be temporary depending on when Sami Vatanen arrives and/or when younger defensemen like Ty Smith warrant NHL action. Tennyson is effectively an AHL/NHL tweener. Someone who did well enough in camp to warrant call ups last season and made 20 appearances with New Jersey, but did play like he belonged in Binghamton. I see this as a sign that he did well enough in camp to be used as a spare defenseman on the roster. Again, his time on New Jersey’s roster may be limited as Vatanen still needs to arrive and get into form. At the very least, Carrick and Tennyson are available to be selected for the team’s season opener on Thursday.
There are still other cuts the Devils will have to make before the rosters need to be set by tomorrow evening. The Devils have several waiver-exempt players such as Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, Janne Kuokkanen, Ty Smith, Brett Seney, Michael McLeod, and Nikita Okhotiuk (no longer Okhotyuk). This means they can be moved to the taxi squad or Binghamton whenever they wish. Between now and then, there should be further news about who else made the Devils, who made the taxi squad, and who will join Binghamton as they prepare for a season starting on February 5. Knowing that Wedgewood is not on waivers makes me think Senn will be on the taxi squad.
And, again, when Hischier, Bratt, and Vatanen are in New Jersey and healthy enough to play, there will be further transfers to make room for them. Do not think this will be the only time players will be on waivers. Also, I would expect injuries to happen at some point so players will be recalled. There are no re-entry waivers. If the Devils need Merkley or White or Jacobs for a game or to replace someone in the lineup, then they can be called up to do just that. They would just need to go through the waiver process if they are demoted to the taxi squad or the AHL later. This is not the end for Merkley or the other four Devils. It just means playing for New Jersey is not happening now. These are just initial cuts; they are not necessarily the end of anything.
Now that the Devils have put five players on waivers to get their roster in order, what is your reaction to the news? Do you think Merkley will pass through waivers, or will do you think he will be claimed? Do you also think the Devils made the right decision in keeping Wedgewood, Tennyson, and Bastian on the New Jersey roster? Who else do you think will be moved off of New Jersey’s roster before tomorrow? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these decisions in the comments. Thank you for reading.