The old joke about Gary Bettman was that he was rooting for a tie every night.
Then, when overtime and shootouts eliminated ties, the ol’ NHL commish was happy to see games go to extra time. Parity was his personal heaven. Even the introduction of the salary cap was designed in part to keep the playing field somewhat level.
Well, I wonder what Bettman thinks of his league these days, with teams having to go to battle with makeshift rosters, sometimes without even enough warm bodies to form four lines and three defence pairings.
A mostly unrecognizable Montreal Canadiens team started Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers with 11 forwards and five defencemen -- like a junior ‘C’ or high school roster. Not surprisingly, the Habs lost 5-2 (it could have easily been 12-2). In their past two games, they have been outscored 9-2. Too little too late, the Canadiens have been completely shut down for COVID reasons until Thursday and have had four home games postponed, Jan. 4 through 10.
Misery loves company.
The Ottawa Senators went into an empty Scotiabank Arena on Toronto on Saturday night with a 19-year-old as their first-line centre and guys named Clark Bishop, Logan Shaw and Adam Gaudette in their lineup. Was it really a shock that they had their lunch handed to them by the Leafs, 6-0?
Go ahead, blame goaltender Matt Murray, who has twice been in COVID-19 quarantine this season and hadn’t played an NHL game since Nov. 24.
Blame the effort, which certainly didn’t match that of the no-name Habs in Florida earlier in the day.
But the simple fact is that the competitive imbalance in the NHL is getting to be a real problem. The Senators were missing nearly all of their centres – Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, Colin White and centre/wing Nick Paul. Norris and Paul were added to the COVID protocol list prior to Saturday’s game while Pinto and White are out with long-term injuries. Sophomore Tim Stützle has only recently moved over to centre, and was on the top line Saturday – though coach D.J. Smith mercifully tried to move him away from the Auston Matthews matchup.
By Sunday, veteran centre Chris Tierney and franchise defenceman Thomas Chabot were missing at practice due to COVID “precautions” and on Monday, that shoe dropped. Chabot, Tierney, winger Zach Sanford and assistant coach Bob Jones were all placed on the protocol list. That added up to nine players and a coach added to that list over the past several days: Anton Forsberg, Tyler Ennis, Norris, Paul, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Dillon Heatherington, Chabot, Sanford, Tierney.
In November, 10 Senators players plus staff had tested positive, causing a shutdown of operations for a week.
— Wayne Scanlan (@HockeyScanner) January 3, 2022
“I thought we were done with it,” Senators captain Brady Tkachuk grumbled in a Zoom call on Monday.
Forgive me if I have lost track, but I believe that Tkachuk, Stützle and Artem Zub are the only regulars who have NOT been on the protocol list at some point. A few fill-ins – namely Erik Brannstrom, Logan Shaw, Adam Gaudette and Lassi Thomson -- have also escaped without negative tests, but in most cases would not be in Ottawa if it weren’t for the roster emergencies.
No wonder Smith sounds happy to say “there’s only a few left” to test positive.
Once players are on the list and complete their quarantine, they don’t have to be tested for 90 days. It is possible to get COVID-19 again, especially with the new Omicron variant. Goaltender Filip Gustavsson tested positive in Ottawa and later on with Belleville of the AHL, but asymptomatic players who have already been on the list in the past can play on.
Tkachuk, who believes vaccinated players should be able to play with minor symptoms, added that the players testing positive now have mild symptoms “at most” and feels they should be able to compete.
At Monday’s practice, there were just 10 forwards on the ice and three centres -- Shaw, Stützle and Gaudette. Winger Drake Batherson, who hasn’t played the position since junior, also took some turns at centre and could play there on the top line when the Senators return to action Saturday in Vancouver.
Of course, Ottawa players are saying all the right things about having to soldier on.
“It doesn’t matter who was out, that there weren’t any fans, it doesn’t matter what it is, we’ve been taking it one day at a time here for the past two seasons and there’s no excuse for laying up like that,” said veteran winger Austin Watson, after the rout by the Leafs.
Smith said the dreary game reminded him of the 4-0 loss to the Calgary Flames on Nov. 14, when his pandemic-riddled team played its final game before being shut down for a week. Smith noted a similar lack of focus and energy Saturday night.
The coach, though, did not gloss over the personnel losses.
“I’m just frustrated that we don’t have the players at our disposal to play,” Smith said on Sunday.
On Monday, Smith added: “We’re a .500 team when healthy.” He was factoring in a thriving Shane Pinto to start the season.
As Brannstrom ran the first power play on Monday and defenceman Michael Del Zotto and forward Scott Sabourin were recalled from Belleville to become Ottawa Senators again, Smith spoke of the opportunity for the fill-ins. Almost too many to name.
“You find out what you have,” Smith said. “Guys get thrown out there.”
In an effort to salvage the season, and maintain some kind of regular schedule, the league is more apt to allow games between ravaged lineups than those that run into “Canadian attendance restrictions,” such as the home dates of the Senators. Like the Leafs, Ottawa can’t have more than 1,000 fans at any home game, at least for the next few weeks.
This combination of factors, most of them COVID related, has served to ambush a Senators team that not long ago was being lauded for putting together a nice little month of December, a 5-3-1 record after winning just once in November. That decent run ended abruptly when the NHL put an early pause on their schedule after a Dec. 18 game in Philadelphia.
Now, things have gone from bad to worse. Players continue to roll into COVID protocol -- and the latest postponement was announced Monday with the Senators' game in Seattle coming off the schedule.
Not only will Ottawa be missing players, some of those who are getting healthy would have had an issue crossing the border from Seattle into Vancouver because of quarantine rules. So, the Senators won't play again until Saturday against the Canucks. As always, stay tuned for developments.
The Senators won’t be in roster hell forever. https://t.co/Gz6RQngklg
— Wayne Scanlan (@HockeyScanner) January 3, 2022
No one expected there could be as difficult a season as the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign, but in many ways 2021-22 is worse. At least the teams played those 56 games, while snug in a tight bubble and playing in mostly empty arenas. This season, while attempting to ramp back up to something closer to normal, the result has been a morale-crushing, stop-and-start schedule with no rhythm and no faith in the games laid out on a calendar.
One bright bit of news. With the Senators having been hit so hard by positive tests in November and early January, there is a strong chance they will have a healthy, contributing roster for the remaining months of their schedule. By then it will be some other team’s turn for turmoil.