The Stars returned from the NHL’s holiday break Sunday with numerous new COVID cases. The Blackhawks will hope to avoid a similar situation. | AP Photos
The taxi squad and new emergency recalls hopefully will help teams keep playing games and fielding full rosters in spite of inevitable COVID outbreaks.
The NHL will return from the holiday break looking a lot more like its spring 2021 version than its fall 2021 version.
And the Blackhawks’ first game back — Tuesday against the Blue Jackets — has become one the guinea pigs of the new approach.
With the NHL extending the break by a day to allow more time to process the leaguewide COVID-19 test results Sunday, 14 games scheduled for Monday were postponed. The Hawks weren’t scheduled to play Monday, however, and therefore will become one of the first eight teams to resume play Tuesday.
First and foremost, the Hawks have to hope they remain as relatively COVID-free in the coming days as they were before the break.
Defenseman Calvin de Haan presumably will remain on the COVID protocol list until Thursday, 10 days after he went on it, but the results of testing Sunday should provide an early indication about whether the NHL’s extended break worked to slow the leaguewide spread.
Realizing COVID will be a bigger factor in the coming month than it had been earlier this season, however, the NHL on Sunday wisely reinstituted several rules to help teams with roster flexibility.
The taxi squads from last season temporarily will return between now and the All-Star break in early February, CapFriendly reported.
Teams can assign up to six players to the taxi squad at a time, although they aren’t required to assign any if they want to keep their American Hockey League team flush with talent. There are a number of specific restrictions about which players are eligible for taxi-squad designation and how long each player can stay there (maximum of 20 days).
For salary-cap purposes, taxi-squad players will count as though they’re still in the AHL but will be present with the NHL team for immediate recalls.
Arguably more important, however, is that the NHL instituted a new roster emergency exception (REE) rule. The REE allows players with cap hits of less than $1 million to be recalled as replacements for NHL players who contract COVID without counting against the cap. Teams previously had to play one game short-handed before being eligible for emergency recalls.
That adjustment probably should have been put in place long ago, but it nonetheless should help outbreak-stricken teams avoid postponements, wage fair fights and not overwork their healthy players.
Stricter masking and distancing protocols implemented by the NHL shortly before the hastened holiday break will remain in place for at least the next few weeks, too.
From the Hawks’ perspective, the new rules might not seem particularly relevant because the team so far hasn’t had to deal with many of the COVID-related hardships other teams have.
But if an outbreak does occur this winter, the new rules should make it much more viable for them to keep playing games.
That’s the situation the Stars — the Hawks’ last opponent before the holiday break — found themselves in Sunday. Previously one of the few teams relatively untouched by COVID, they put Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen, Radek Faksa, Joel Kiviranta, Michael Raffl and two staff members in protocols after receiving their end-of-break test results.
The Hawks should find out in the coming days whether any of their upcoming opponents — several of whom (Jackets, Predators and Flames) endured large outbreaks before the holiday pause — still have ongoing health situations that might jeopardize the scheduled games.