The all-Canadian division talk has been in hockey news circles for many weeks. The big reason for this being travel restrictions and quarantine requirements for anybody who crosses the border, and it looks increasingly like an all-Canadian division will exist in the 2020-21 NHL season.
A wrinkle that hasn’t been talked about nearly enough is what would happen with the three Canadian teams with American AHL affiliates: the Calgary Flames with the Stockton Heat, the Edmonton Oilers with the Bakersfield Condors, and the Vancouver Canucks with the Utica Comets. How would the western Canadian trio of teams deal with player movement between the big club and the farm?
Not to mention inter-state travel in the USA too. California, for example, has a 14-day quarantine requirement for people entering the state. The farm teams for the Los Angeles Kings play in California, but if they’re on a road trip in another state and the Kings need to call up players, they would face the quarantine requirement. Travel restrictions also exist for people entering Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, Washington, and DC.
It’s a very important question. Players are called up and sent down many, many times throughout an NHL season for various reasons, and with a condensed schedule on the horizon, the risk for injury is higher than it has been in previous years.
How would these teams deal with callups if they sustained injuries? What if their goalie was hurt, or, the reason that is at the forefront of everybody’s mind, what if there is an outbreak of COVID-19?
There was talk of the three Canadian teams’ AHL franchises temporarily relocating to Canada to mitigate these risks. However, the cost of temporary relocation was deemed too high and that idea has now been put to bed. It also doesn’t help the USA based teams with farm teams in other states with potentially other rules.
The new idea that is gaining traction and looks like it can be the solution is the addition of taxi squads.
What is a taxi squad
The concept of a taxi squad exists in both the NFL and the MLB. Essentially, a taxi squad is a small group of players that practice with the team, but do not participate in games. Their purpose is to practice with the team, help players prepare for upcoming games, and be close to the team in case they are called on to play in the big club.
In the NFL, these players are part of the practice squad. Practice squads include 10 players, count towards the salary cap, are paid weekly, and can be released at any time.
The MLB taxi squad exists for COVID purposes, and looks to be the model the NHL will potentially emulate.
From the MLB website, these are the important notes on their taxi squads verbatim:
- Each team will be permitted a three-player Taxi Squad for every road trip, giving them immediate options to replace an injured or COVID-19 infected player.
- The goal of bringing them on the trip is to avoid putting a player on a commercial flight if an injury occurs.
- [Taxi Squads] must feature at least one catcher, while the other two players can be either pitchers or position players.
- Taxi Squad players will not be paid MLB salary or accrue service time, but they will receive the Major League allowance of $108.50 per day along with their Minor League salary.
The idea being considered right now would have NHL taxi squads operate on a similar payment model with players earning their AHL salaries but collecting NHL per diems. The MLB doesn’t have a salary cap though, so that is something the NHL would have to figure out. It doesn’t make sense for NHL taxi squad players to count towards the cap.
Who would be in contention for the Flames’ taxi squad
It’s probably a safe assumption at this point for the following penciled roster to be the Flames’ opening night roster for 2020-21:
- Forwards: Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, Sean Monahan, Dillon Dube, Sam Bennett, Mikael Backlund, Josh Leivo, Milan Lucic, Derek Ryan, Dominik Simon, Joakim Nordstrom
- Defense: Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Juuso Valimaki, Nikita Nesterov, Oliver Kylington
- Goalies: Jacob Markstrom, David Rittich
That leaves the following players likely in contention for being on the taxi squad:
- Forwards: Zac Rinaldo, Justin Kirkland, Jakob Pelletier, Luke Philp, Adam Ruzicka, Dmitri Zavgorodny, Matthew Phillips, Byron Froese, Glenn Gawdin, Buddy Robinson, Eetu Tuulola, Martin Pospisil
- Defense: Carl-Johan Lerby, Connor Mackey, Colton Poolman, Alexander Yelesin, Johannes Kinnvall, Alex Petrovic
- Goalies: Louis Domingue, Artyom Zagidulin, Tyler Parsons, Dustin Wolf
Pros and cons of a taxi squad
Don’t just assume the players who are next in line for a full-time NHL job will automatically be on the Flames’ taxi squad. In actuality, the decision is much more complicated than “next man up” and in fact, it might make sense for those players to not be on the squad.
The benefits of a player being on a taxi squad are, first and foremost, monetary. They’d earn the same amount as they would in the minors but get NHL per diems, $110 compared to $79 in the AHL.
They are also a step closer to seeing NHL action as they would be called upon to fill holes in the NHL roster which is ultimately the goal of most professional hockey players. Without needing to go through the wear and tear of playing games due to participation being limited to practices, these players remain fresh and will constantly push for roster promotion.
On the flip side, it’s unlikely most of the players on the taxi squad will play NHL games. They might be in line to fill in for players on the big club, but at the end of the day they’ll be waiting around until a spot opens up. That has the potential to hurt the development of younger players or those still learning how to ply their trade in the North American pro ranks.
The cons definitely affect a selection of players more than others, which could help sharpen the image of who might be the frontrunners for jobs on the Flames’ taxi squad.
Predicting the flames’ taxi squad
There haven’t been any reports on how large the taxi squad would be, but a normal NHL roster has room for three additional players, so the taxi squad would likely be at least that number. There is speculation that it could be a full starting lineup of six players (three forwards, two defense, one goalie), or even up to 10 players. Regardless, we can likely eliminate several players right off the bat, and formulate the taxi squad from those remaining.
On forward, I think Pelletier, Zavgorodny, Phillips, and Gawdin can be taken out of consideration. These four players have legit shots at being NHL players and are still very early in their careers. Their development is extremely important and despite how close Pelletier, Phillips and Gawdin are to the Flames, they need to be playing games, not sitting in the press box and watching them.
In a normal 2020-21 season, Phillips and Gawdin would be the first two callups on forward, but in this unique season, the developmental risk of keeping them out of games is too high. This season is already going to be shorter and weirder than ever before, just let them continue to refine their games in the AHL.
Tuulola, Pospisil, and perhaps Philp and Kirkland are also out of contention. They’re not in the same boat as Phillips and Gawdin, but they are just too far from the NHL for the Flames to be able to rely on them to fill in on the big club.
That leaves Rinaldo, Ruzicka, Froese, and Robinson. With the exception of Ruzicka, all three have played NHL games, are veterans on the farm team, can fill in NHL roles, and don’t cost very much if they were called up. Ruzicka was on the Flames’ expanded return to play roster so maybe he gets a look as well.
The likely forward picks are Rinaldo, Froese, and Robinson.
On defense, Mackey is likely out of contention for the same reasons as Phillips and Gawdin, unless he works his way onto the NHL roster in training camp (which could happen). Yelesin might be in that group as well.
Lerby, Poolman, and Kinnvall are out of contention for the same reasons as Tuulola, as they can’t be relied upon to fill in for NHL games.
That leaves just Petrovic. At this point, the Flames would likely opt for Petrovic and Yelesin because they both have NHL games under their belt and are not firmly in the development phase of their careers.
However, Yelesin has proved to be a very good AHL player and was counted on to play four NHL games last season. It might be best for him to play in the AHL and not waste away in the press box. If the Flames share this line of thinking, then they would need to sign another depth defender. Based on track record, that defender could very well be no other than Michael Stone.
The likely defensive picks are Petrovic and Yelesin, or a to be determined depth signing in Yelesin’s place.
In goal, Parsons and Wolf can be immediately removed from contention. Neither have even proved themselves at the professional level in general, and that is just not way the Flames would want them to bring them into the NHL.
The intention was as clear as day when the Flames signed Domingue, he was specifically brought on to be the NHL-calibre third stringer. Zagidulin has struggled in the KHL this season and has just one season of North American professional hockey under his belt, which makes him the less optimal choice than Domingue.
The goaltending pick is Domingue.
Still lots of questions to be answered
With the guess of a six-man taxi squad, the Flames’ would likely select Rinaldo, Froese, Robinson, Petrovic, Yelesin, and Domingue.
However, there are still lots of questions that need answers. If the NHL does decide to use the taxi squad model, they need to first decide on the size. After that’s determined, there’s a handful of pressing questions that follow.
Will NHL teams be able to call up and send down players at will? Will these players be following standard waiver rules or will there be modifications? Will NHL teams be able to call up and send down players between the taxi squads and their actual AHL franchise, or are the squads locked for a period of time?
Fingers were crossed for the NHL to resume on January 1, 2021, but it doesn’t seem like that date is in the cards. There are still lots of things to figure out and new issues seem to pop up all the time. Hopefully we’ll get news on how expanded rosters and callups will be handled soon, and we can move one step closer to dropping the puck.