NHL hopes taxi squads will help teams stay on ice in pandemic

The Blues will have to make decisions on prospects such as defenseman Niko Mikkola -- if they don't make the 23-man roster, should they be kept on the taxi squad or hone their game in the minors?
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL is bracing for bumps as it aims to pull off a season during the pandemic. The hope is that taxi squads will help teams stay on the ice.

The defending Western Conference champion Dallas Stars have already had to postpone their season opener this week because six players and two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. The Stars won’t face an opponent earlier than Jan. 19, when they’re currently scheduled to play at Tampa Bay in a Stanley Cup Final rematch.

Dallas and every other team will likely lean on taxi squads this season.

NHL teams get to have four to six players on taxi squads after they clear waivers, essentially expanding the size of the team beyond the 23-man limit when teams submit their rosters to the league Tuesday.

Hundreds of players were put on waivers Monday, including Montreal’s Corey Perry and Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and Luke Schenn. All could now be taxi squad bound.

“We’re going into unchartered waters with the taxi squad that is in place to try to get us through the season,” Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “Taxi squads will give us 29 players tested every day, practicing and traveling with us that are eligible to play in games on short notice.”

Players on taxi squads can be put on the active roster as late as 5 p.m. Eastern on a game day, giving clubs a better chance of having four lines, three defensive pairings and two goaltenders even if rosters take a hit because of COVID-19 protocols. Teams must have three goaltenders available among the 29 players.

While taxi squads will benefit teams trying to navigate the season, general managers will wrestle with whether they should keep prospects to play sparingly in the NHL or send them to compete regularly in American Hockey League games, enhancing their development.

“You’d have to prioritize your thinking,” Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams said. “I’d say we’ll start with what we feel is what gives the Buffalo Sabres the best opportunity to be successful and win hockey games, and we’ll work off of that.”

When NHL teams do want to call up prospects from the minor leagues, those based in the U.S. will be able to get them on the ice quicker than some of their Canadian counterparts.

“There will be a quarantine period of seven days to bring somebody up,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said.

Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary will have to wait longer. Those teams have U.S.-based minor league affiliates and anyone crossing the border for nonessential reasons must isolate for 14 days.

“That adds another six days to anyone coming to Canada, to the clubs in western Canada,” Holland said. “When we assign players to the AHL, it’s much more difficult to get them back. And that will factor into our decisions when we have to submit rosters.”

Taxi squads are like the NFL’s practice squads during the pandemic, giving teams a way to bolster depth at thin positions and to provide a layer of insurance if COVID-19 protocols rule players out.

“I’ve talked to people from the football world about that,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said.

Hockey has long had a similar group of players in the playoffs, referring to them as “Black Aces,” a 19th century poker term brought into hockey by Hall of Famer Eddie Shore 90 years ago. In the postseason, these are generally prospects just happy to be around the NHL club after their minor league seasons end.

In this pandemic-altered season, young taxi squad players may grow tired of being relegated to practicing while their peers are gaining experience playing in the minors.

Detroit Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula fondly recalls his 74-game run with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins 15 years ago before moving up to play in the world’s top hockey league.

“I felt fortunate getting sent down, getting to play, and play in a lot of situations in all the games,” the 36-year-old Finn said. “It depends how old you are. But for everybody, it’s good to play games and not just practice.”

The AHL season was in doubt until recently when it announced 28 teams plan to start their season in February; three clubs opted out of playing in the pandemic. The St. Louis Blues’ new affiliate in Springfield, Mass., was among the three. The Vancouver Canucks will share their AHL affiliate in Utica, N.Y., with the Blues this season.

Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice made it clear he would rather have prospects competing for the Manitoba Moose than simply skating, testing and traveling with the Jets.

“I don’t want young guys in general on the taxi squad not playing,” Maurice said.