The NHL is emerging from an extended holiday break with taxi squads and other roster revisions, a move made to guard against more disruptions to the season amid more players and coaches going into COVID-19 protocol Sunday.
Each team will be allowed to have a taxi squad of up to six players and to make emergency recalls from the minors if COVID-19 absences would cause anyone to play without a full lineup. Taxi squads, which were used during the shortened 2021 season, are set to be in effect until at least the All-Star break in early February.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the new roster rules in an email to The Associated Press, and the NHL announced the changes Sunday night. The league also postponed three additional games — Columbus at Chicago on Tuesday night and Pittsburgh at Toronto, and Boston at Ottawa on Wednesday night.
"Any relief is welcome, believe me," said Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito, who is eager to see how the flexibility might help. "It’s tough. What if all your goalies get it? What are you going to do? We’ve been through, as a management team, any number of scenarios surrounding the ‘what-ifs’ — or maybe we’re kidding ourselves and we should be thinking about the ‘whens,’ as far as who gets it and when."
Under the new provisions, any team shy of having 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders available can bring up a player from the American Hockey League without playing a game with fewer than the usual 18 skaters. Emergency recalls also can be made of players with salary-cap hits of up to $1 million, an increase from the previous $850,000 limit.
Players on the taxi squad will count as being in the minors for cap purposes. They can be there for a maximum of 20 days.
The goal of the changes is to keep the NHL season going after 67 games already have been postponed for coronavirus-related reasons. All 14 games initially scheduled for Monday previously were postponed to allow for analyzing of COVID-19 tests taken Sunday by players, coaches and staff upon returning to team facilities.
"It’s my understanding that every game that is scheduled now will be played, unless for whatever reason there is a change," said New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello, whose team is scheduled to play again Wednesday. "Every indication we have (is) we will be playing. We have no indication that we will not be playing."
The return to team facilities also brought the predictable result of additions to the COVID-19 protocol list across the league.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lighting added goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and assistant coach Rob Zettler to the list. The Islanders added forwards Anthony Beauvillier, Cal Clutterbuck, Zach Parise, and Oliver Wahlstrom and activated Mathew Barzal.
Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen, forwards Jason Robertson, Joel Kiviranta, Radek Faksa and Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ryan Ellis, Buffalo Sabres forwards Dylan Cozens and Mark Jankowski and coach Don Granato, Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau and Boston Bruins center Charlie Coyle also entered protocol.
The Sabres said Cozens, Jankowski and Granato were asymptomatic. The team canceled a scheduled practice, which was to be Buffalo’s first since Dec. 18.
The NHL began its annual Christmas break a day earlier than anticipated last week amid a rapid increase of positive COVID-19 test results among players. At the time, more than a quarter of the league’s 32 teams were shut down because of outbreaks.
Because of its seven teams based in Canada, the NHL cannot follow the lead of the NFL by not doing blanket testing of fully vaccinated, asymptomatic players. Lamoriello said league officials are doing their best without any control over rules and restrictions set out by the Canadian federal and provincial governments.
"Unless we weren’t playing in Canada and we didn’t have teams in Canada, you could consider that, and certainly it would be (considered)," Lamoriello said of adjusting testing requirements. "But with the guidelines and rules of Canada, it’s impossible to have happen. We wouldn’t be able to have games without the testing that is required to play in Canada."
A lack of widespread booster availability in Canada could also stunt efforts by the NHL to make an extra dose of a COVID-19 part of being considered fully vaccinated, like the NBA has done.
Several NHL teams returned to practice Sunday, including the Calgary Flames, who last played Dec. 11 and had been shut down because of a virus outbreak that included 20 players and 13 staff ending up in COVID-19 protocol.