As I had said in my post about the 1975 Intra-league Draft, the last intra-league draft, interest in the draft was at that point almost non-existent. The talent pool had been diluted by expansion and the creation of the WHA and the draft price of $40,000 scared off most of the teams. It wasn't worth picking players at the intra-league draft anymore so the teams decided in the middle of the '75-'76 season that there was no point in continuing the practice.
However, there was still the problem of enormous imbalance in league standings. The intra-league draft was created in the early '50s to mitigate the problem and it was starting to work by the mid-'60s. It stopped working after expansions in '67, '70, '72 and '74 tripled the league membership.
In 1977 the NHL, in the middle of merger negotiations with the WHA and ongoing negotiations with the NHLPA regarding the merger with the WHA and a host of other matters, reworked the intra-league draft. All parties recognized that the competitive imbalance in the league was as bad as it had ever been and due to escalating salaries it was becoming harder and harder for some of the expansion teams to continue to do business. The league's planned 1976 expansion to Denver and Seattle was cancelled. The Cleveland Barons were within hours of folding outright in February of 1977. The Penguins did declare bankruptcy in 1975. The Blues and North Stars ownership groups weren't willing to absorb massive losses anymore and wanted to sell, but there weren't any prospective buyers. The Islanders, only a few years old at the time, were mired in debt. Something had to be done to help them and whatever it was it couldn't repeat the mistakes of the intra-league draft.
The plan that was agreed to going forwarded was an amended version of the intra-league draft. The new draft would be called the waiver draft. Instead of occurring at the June meetings within days of the amateur draft it would be pushed back to within a week of the start of the regular season, at the end of training camps (similar to the original intra-league draft rules proposed by Clarence Campbell in the early '50s). The drafting procedures were basically the same as the intra-league draft: selection order is the reverse of the regular season standing, teams file protected lists, they drop players from their protected lists when they select a player, the team that lost the player can choose between a cash payment or the player dropped by the other team as compensation, etc. What changed substantially was the draft price.
Whereas the intra-league draft price was, by the '70s, a flat $40,000 fee for every player (and $30,000 for every dropped player claimed as compensation) the waiver draft price was on a sliding scale. The price was tied to the age and experience of the player. Younger players with less experience would command a higher price and as the player gained more experience the waiver draft price for him would slide further and further down. The hope was that keeping the price for younger players higher would be sufficient disincentive to any team that might pluck a player off the reserve list of one of its rivals for the sole purpose of hurting the other team—they'd really have to want that young player. Conversely having a lower price for veteran players would be an incentive for them to be chosen and for them to continue their careers where they were really needed instead of withering on the vine on a deep team or worse, like being buried in the minors. Something I'm sure recent players like Wade Redden, Sheldon Souray, Rostislav Olesz and Jeff Finger wished they had the option of avoiding, I'm sure!
All first-year professional players were exempt from claim, no matter their age. The rules were eventually amended such that a player's draft exemption period would last for a certain number of seasons of professional hockey based on the player's age when he signed his first pro contract, or the exemption would lapse if the player appeared in a minimum number NHL of games.
In the event of a war players who were serving in the military were exempt, as were players suspended by the league (not by the club) and players who signed as a free agent with a club outside of the NHL. This "free agent" clause was particularly important at the time the waiver draft rules were written given the WHA's penchant for poaching players from the NHL; the NHL club could however choose to expose a player on their free agent list. If a "free agent" was not exposed in the waiver draft and he returned to the NHL mid-season he would have to go through waivers first though, so there was incentive for teams to expose such players.
Just as it was in the intra-league draft each club could only lose three players (excluding players transferred as compensation), and this three player limit was increased by one for every draft choice the team made. Waiver draft rules were amended so that the three player limit included a maximum of only one goaltender, unless the club chose to expose one or more additional goaltenders.
Another rule (which was of particular importance in 1978...) was that a player claimed in the waiver draft could not be traded to another team during the following season unless the player was offered on waivers and cleared. This clause was designed to prevent teams from crafting backroom deals.
Going forward I will strive to present as much information on each year's waiver draft as I can find. Some years were covered in much more detail by the press than others.