Did somebody call a taxi squad?
Anticipating that coronavirus cases will disrupt an already abbreviated schedule — and that vaccination won’t soon occur widely — teams will be allowed to keep four to six extra players on hand when the NHL season opens Wednesday. The taxi squad is designed to help teams navigate the perils of playing during a pandemic that will keep most of its arenas empty, at least to start.
The Stanley Cup playoffs were contested in bubbles last season, but the NHL didn’t propose replicating that because players understandably don’t want to be separated from family for six months. Teams were temporarily aligned into geographically close divisions to minimize travel, and all seven teams based in Canada were grouped together. Play will be limited to intra-division games in a 56-game schedule.
To ward off COVID-19, the NHL and NHL Players’ Assn. collaborated on a 213-page list of safety procedures. “The protocols are not a suggestion or recommendation but need to be done in order for us to address and get through the pandemic, and we will vigorously enforce them,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said this week.
The NHL said Tuesday that 27 players tested positive for COVID-19 during training camp, 17 of them with Dallas. The Stars’ season opener has been delayed for at least a week.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says it would be cheaper not play this season, but feels it’s important for the game to proceed.
A few other teams canceled practices out of caution. Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is considering another step — holding different meetings or Zoom sessions for goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. “We’re trying to separate those two as much as possible in case there’s an outbreak, they’re not together and they don’t both have to go into the tracing program,” Cassidy said. “It’s tough enough when you lose one goaltender. Imagine losing two at the same time?”
Ducks coach Dallas Eakins split his team in two groups for video sessions and held some workouts outdoors. “This is all so new and the plan is ever evolving,” he said. “It is a never-ending conversation.”
Here’s a look at how things could shape up, in predicted order of finish:
Colorado: Formidable up front and driven by puck-moving defensemen — including rookie of the year Cale Makar and new addition Devon Toews — the Avalanche are poised for a deep playoff run. Adding Brandon Saad (21 goals with a bad Chicago Blackhawks team last season) enhanced their depth and balance.
St. Louis: The Blues lost size when standout defenseman Alex Pietrangelo left as a free agent but gained a power-play catalyst by signing defenseman Torey Krug. They’ll miss Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder surgery), but free-agent forward Mike Hoffman should give them a shot at adding to their 2019 Cup championship.
Vegas: Pietrangelo is a good addition, but to make room for his seven-year, $61.6-million deal, the Golden Knights had to trade core defenseman Nate Schmidt and No. 2 center Paul Stastny. Depth up the middle could be a problem, but their defense is mobile and active. The Golden Knights are solid in goal with Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Kings: It’s time for the talented kids they’ve accumulated the last few dismal seasons to take ownership. The progress made last season by Matt Roy and Alex Iafallo and the potential for youngsters Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte to bring scoring this season gives them a chance to return to the playoffs.
With the Kings working through player absences, there’s a chance that Quinton Byfield’s NHL debut could be coming sooner than expected.
Minnesota: Left wing Kirill Kaprizov comes from Russia with big expectations. The Wild’s top four defensemen (Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter) are their backbone, and Cam Talbot should upgrade their goaltending. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot after the stacked top three.
Arizona: Their new general manager, Bill Armstrong, has his work cut out: Arizona traded its 2020 first-round draft pick for rent-a-player Taylor Hall and lost its 2020 second-round and 2021 first-round picks for violating scouting combine rules. The team is scrappy and has some skill but lacks the scoring to go far.
Ducks: They shouldn’t put pressure on forward Trevor Zegras, who was spectacular for champion Team USA at the world junior championship, but he could make an impact for a team that last season ranked 29th in scoring and a bumbling 30th on the power play. Goalie John Gibson will keep them in most games despite regularly being subjected to too many shots.
San Jose: They were last in the West last season completely on merit, or lack thereof. Their goaltending was atrocious even after assigning blame to their porous defense, and they don’t have young talent to offer imminent help.
Toronto: The Maple Leafs benefit from realignment taking Boston and Tampa Bay out of their path. They didn’t get younger or faster by adding Joe Thornton (41) and Wayne Simmonds (32) but they added brawn, potentially useful while playing rivals nine or 10 times. Their offense is impressive and their top four on defense are solid but they’ll need consistency from goalie Frederik Andersen.
Edmonton: Scoring champion and most valuable player Leon Draisaitl, scoring runner-up Connor McDavid and the No. 1 power play didn’t save the Oilers from being upset by Chicago in the qualifying round last season. They’ve become a bit deeper up front but expect more of the same: They’ll have a spectacular power play and score a lot but will struggle defensively.
Vancouver: The Canucks are on the rise, led by center Elias Pettersson (27 goals in 68 games last season), gifted defenseman Quinn Hughes and San Diego-born goalie Thatcher Demko. General manager Jim Benning signed veteran Braden Holtby to back up Demko and improved the defense by acquiring defenseman Nate Schmidt, setting up the Canucks to take another step or two forward.
Calgary: Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are coming off so-so seasons, but Matthew Tkachuk (23 goals in 69 games) should be his usual productive and pesky self. Adding Chris Tanev on defense should take pressure off workhorse Mark Giordano. Signing free agent Jacob Markstrom was a necessary goaltending upgrade.
Winnipeg: Connor Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie after facing a league-leading 1,796 shots last season and compiling a .922 save percentage. He’s likely to again be at the mercy of the Jets’ thin defense. They’re strong up front, but high-scoring winger Patrik Laine reportedly wants out; getting equal return will be tough.
Montreal: The Canadiens made good complementary moves to bring in winger Tyler Toffoli and defenseman Joel Edmundson, as well as goalie Jake Allen to partner with No. 1 goalie Carey Price. To contend for a playoff spot, centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi will have to come through, and power forward Josh Anderson will have to bounce back from a shoulder injury.
Ottawa: The rebuild continues for the Senators, who ranked 30th in points and at or near the bottom in most categories. Forward Brady Tkachuk and defenseman Thomas Chabot stand out on a weak team; forward Tim Stuetzle (the No. 3 pick in the draft) and defenseman Jake Sanderson (No. 5) offer hope for the still-distant future.
Tampa Bay: Winger Nikita Kucherov, who led the Cup champion Lightning in playoff scoring with 34 points in 25 games, had hip surgery and is expected to miss the regular season. That’s a tough loss, but the talented Lightning can absorb that and win again. Don’t overlook goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who led the NHL with 35 wins last season.
Carolina: Sebastian Aho (38 goals in 68 games last season), Andrei Svechnikov (24 goals, 61 points) and Teuvo Teravainen (63 points) are dazzling. The Hurricanes’ defense is capable, but the question is whether goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer can do their part over the long haul.
Columbus: Max Domi gives the Blue Jackets a solid No. 2 center behind Pierre-Luc Dubois, who has been rumored to want a trade. Defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are impact players at both ends. Goalie Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins are underrated and a reason Columbus defies doubters.
Dallas: Last season’s surprise West champions are hurting: Leading scorer Tyler Seguin (hip surgery) and goalie Ben Bishop (knee surgery) are expected to be out until March or April. In their absence the Stars will look for scoring and leadership from Jamie Benn and continued excellence from goalie Anton Khudobin (2.22 goals-against average, .930 save percentage).
Nashville: Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are franchise players and forward Filip Forsberg has scored at least 20 goals for six straight seasons, but the Predators’ trademark defensive play sagged last season. They need Matt Duchene (13 goals, 42 points in 66 games) to step up.
Florida: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky started his seven-year, $70-million contract with some of the worst numbers of his career (3.23 goals-against average, .900 save percentage). Jonathan Huberdeau was a standout with 23 goals and 78 points in 69 games, but losing Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov to free agency means the Panthers will have to rely too much on Huberdeau.
Chicago: Stalwart team captain Jonathan Toews missed camp because of an unspecified illness and there’s no timetable for his return. Forward Alex Nylander underwent knee surgery that will keep him out long-term, and prospect Kirby Dach injured his wrist at the world junior championship and will be out at least four months. Play the kids and hope for luck in the draft lottery.
Detroit: A difficult climb continues for the Red Wings, who last season ranked last overall (17-49-5, 39 points) and in goal differential (minus -122). They won’t be much better while they wait for the draft lottery. Kudos for signing free-agent forward Bobby Ryan to impart wisdom and maintain a good work ethic.
Philadelphia: Carter Hart is the Flyers’ best goaltending find since Ron Hextall repelled pucks and opponents three decades ago. Hart gives his teammates noticeable confidence. That security, plus a group of rugged and experienced forwards and core of mobile defensemen, should boost the Flyers to first place and take them beyond last season’s second-round Game 7 playoff exit.
Washington: The Capitals hoped goalie Ilya Samsonov would be backed up by veteran Henrik Lundqvist, but Lundqvist required season-ending heart surgery. Alexander Ovechkin shared the NHL goal-scoring lead last season with 48 and has a lot left to give a veteran team that hired turnaround specialist Peter Laviolette as coach. It will be strange to see longtime Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, 43, in a Capitals uniform.
Boston: Losing Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug to free agency left big gaps on defense. Top-line winger David Pastrnak (hip surgery) will miss the first few weeks, but winger Brad Marchand (sports hernia surgery) might be ready opening night. Patrice Bergeron was a fine choice to succeed Chara as captain. Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak form one of the NHL’s top goaltending tandems.
New York Islanders: They solved a major problem late in camp by re-signing center Mathew Barzal, who led them in regular-season scoring and had 17 points in 22 playoff games as they reached the East final. Coach Barry Trotz always has good defensive teams, and that should continue.
Pittsburgh: A team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on board should be a sure Cup contender every year, but the Penguins have been eliminated in the first round each of the last two seasons. They should have better scoring balance after acquiring Kasperi Kapanen, but their defense is iffy.
New York Rangers: Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good: The Rangers won the draft lottery and chose phenom Alexis Lafrenière No. 1. He will have a big adjustment to make, especially in a compact schedule against a lot of heavy hitters. Defense remains their weakness, but goalie Igor Shesterkin was impressive last season in a small sample size.
Buffalo: The Sabres pulled off a surprise by signing free-agent forward Taylor Hall for a year. He should provide the support long craved by Jack Eichel (career-best 36 goals last season). Player to watch: forward Dylan Cozens, the top goal scorer (eight) while representing Canada at the recent world junior tournament.
New Jersey: The rebuilding Devils were jolted when goalie Corey Crawford, who signed as a free agent, retired during camp. That leaves the job to Mackenzie Blackwood, who had a 2.77 goals-against average and .915 save percentage for a weak team last season. The Devils hope 2019 No. 1 pick Jack Hughes can improve on his seven-goal, 21-point season.