The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world. This season it has invaded two teams’ locker rooms, the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders, and this week surprised the Calgary Flames with six players and one member of the training staff in COVID protocol. All seven have been reported to have the virus but be asymptomatic, leaving the team shorthanded and putting games on hold for the time being.
While all thoughts are with the players and staff who are in protocol, behind the scenes the questions arise around how the team will deal with icing a lineup while remaining cap compliant. Based on a close reading of the NHL’s 2021–22 COVID Protocol document, The NHL’s CBA, and a number of secondary sources, here is what we have found.
Details on the NHL’s COVID-19 Protocol
When deciding to restart the NHL season in late 2020, the NHL and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) reached an agreement on a number of issues, called the 2020–21 Transition Rules. These rules were further amended for this season, and govern items like extending contracts from July 1st to July 12th when the season ends this season, buyout rules, quarantine and player return rules, and more.
Of perhaps greatest importance to team owners and managers are the rules around team rosters and the salary cap. With a flat cap, most teams are abutted right to the limit, with few dollars to spend in case of emergency.
To enter COVID protocol, a player must initially test positive. Once that happens, they are isolated and contact tracing begins. They then get a second test to confirm the initial test. If that is positive, they then enter COVID protocol. If that test is negative, they then get two more tests, one of which is a lab-reviewed PCR test. If all four total tests (initial then subsequent three), the player is deemed to have tested negative. If any of those three subsequent tests is positive, the player enters protocol.
When players are in COVID protocol, they can be designated as non-roster by teams. What this means is that they do not count against the 23-man active roster, but do count against the salary cap. For example, if the Flames were to designate all six players that are currently in COVID Protocol as non-roster, they would have six open spaces on their roster, but would have no additional salary cap room to fill those spots.
Per the NHL, players in COVID protocol must stay in isolation for ten days after symptoms first appeared as well as at least 24 hours since last fever. Even if a player is asymptomatic, they must remain in protocol for the full ten days. The individual must also receive medical clearance from the team’s doctor that they are no longer able to transmit the virus as well as follow any local health guidelines on the matter. If a player has persistent symptoms throughout their isolation, they must subsequently be cleared by a cardiologist as well as receive numerous chest and heart tests.
If a player does test positive for the virus, they are eligible to be placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) and this can be done retroactively to the date of their first positive test. This gives the team some salary cap relief, but it means the player must be on LTIR for 10 games and 24 days, which is obviously less than ideal.
What happens if there aren’t enough players?
The general rule is that if a team has 18 or more skaters and two goalies available (20 to 22 available players) and have less than $800K available in salary cap, they need to play one game with the players that they do have available. Following that, they are able to call up players with a cap hit of $850K or less to substitute in for the missing players. These moves do not count against the cap, but once the players in COVID protocol are deemed fit to play, the substitute players must be sent back.
What does this mean for the Flames?
The Flames currently have six players in COVID Protocol: Brad Richardson, Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Adam Ruzicka, Nikita Zadorov, and Chris Tanev, along with one member of the staff, however, this is expected to ruse with news of more cases coming out this morning. The team has officially postponed three games: December 13 against the Chicago Blackhawks, December 14 against the Nashville Predators, and December 16 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The earliest that the team will play is Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, while the earliest that these six players will be able to resume training, assuming their first positive test was on Sunday, is December 22nd, the day before they are set to face former captain Mark Giordano and the Seattle Kraken. However, none of the players will have practiced in ten days, which may leave them a bit rusty when they return to the ice.
One thing is for certain, the Flames will not have any of the six players available for the game on Saturday should it go ahead. This would leave the team with ten forwards, five defencemen, and two netminders—below the minimum number of players needed to fill out a full roster. Because of the rules, the Flames would have to play this game with only the players that they have available, following which they would be able to call up players earning less than $850k without worrying about the cap implications.
A reasonable guess would be that the Flames probably look at some combination of Glenn Gawdin, Walker Duehr, Matthew Phillips, Justin Kirkland, and Martin Pospisil up front, as well as Nick DeSimone and Andy Welinski on the blueline. They could also call up Eetu Tuulola, Luke Philp, Ilya Solovyov, or Kevin Gravel, but these would be big surprises.
They are unable to call up Connor Zary, Mathias Emilio Pettersen, Jakob Pelletier, Juuso Valimaki, or Connor Zary as they earn more than $850K this season. The Flames may get some additional room to recall a player by sending Brett Ritchie or Tyler Pitlick to the LTIR should they still be injured and not deemed game-ready, and may also have some additional help if Johannes Kinnvall is nearing a return from injury, but the latter seems incredibly unlikely. If they move either Ritchie or Pitlick to LTIR, they may have the space to call up another player from Stockton on a regular recall, but the cap space is very limited right now.
While it is a relief to see that the Flames’ players in protocol are asymptomatic, this does add additional pressure at a time when the Flames are already struggling. Losing two top-six forwards and a top defenceman for up to ten days is a huge loss without even factoring for the other three skaters. Hopefully, the Flames are able to come out of this stronger, and that they can use this adversity to help them get back into the win column.