A year ago at this time, the NHL was gearing up for its ‘one-off’ condensed schedule due to COVID-19.
In the case of the Ottawa Senators, a 56-game schedule would begin on Jan. 15 and end May 12 -- 56 games crammed into 118 days.
Welcome to Groundhog Year.
As they prepare to visit the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night, the Senators' second game in the past three weeks, Ottawa is staring down the barrel of a 53-game slate in 110 days. Almost identical to last year’s “unique” parameters.
That 110-day span only holds IF the regular season is not extended beyond April 29, a final day the league is determined to keep. Assuming no more major scheduling interruptions, a rather gigantic assumption at this point, the Senators will have a daunting challenge playing two-thirds of an NHL season on an every-other-day basis. Last year, Ottawa played once every 2.10 days. At this point, the ask is a game every 2.07 days. The schedule got tighter after the latest postponements, this Saturday in Vancouver -- a game dropped just hours before the Senators were due to board their plane on Friday -- and Jan. 15 in Winnipeg.
“Today was disappointing,” admitted Senators head coach D.J. Smith. “These are young guys, they’re excited to get on that plane, get on the road. You could see they were frustrated, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Yes, prepare for another slew of “it is what is” quotes.
The players most able to take this latest twist in stride are those just coming off COVID-19 protocols, such as defenceman Thomas Chabot, who returned to practice Friday morning.
“We’re still lucky to be able to practise and be together,” Chabot said, after the news of the Vancouver postponement. “Everybody is waiting to start playing hockey again -- we’re excited about that.”
Eventually, these games are going to be played. NHL second in command Bill Daly has said the league can’t go much past mid-January with these postponements, many of them due to the attendance restrictions in Canadian rinks.
“It’s going to be games, games, games . . . and I think the guys want that,” Smith says.
With nine of their past 10 games postponed, Ottawa hasn’t had anything resembling a busy schedule since the middle of December. The Senators now have 12 games to make up.
Looking on the bright side, Smith notes that he will have bodies, including a taxi squad, to help get through the onslaught of games. He expects to take 15 forwards, 8D and three goalies on this trip to Alberta.
And because nearly every single member of the team has tested positive for COVID (Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle and Artem Zub are among the notable exceptions) those players who have had a positive result don’t have to be re-tested for 90 days.
“We only have two or three guys that can test positive,” Smith says.
So long as the team can remain healthy, it no longer has to live in fear of that two-stripe message suggesting they have to sit out. For the most part, symptoms have been mild among players. Goaltender Anton Forsberg is one who has had lingering symptoms and may need the full 10-day period to recover.
He could still accompany the team on the road and be able to play later in the trip.
Other than Forsberg, the Senators should have a pretty complete roster for this roadie -- another reason for their giddiness.
“At some point, we’re looking to have everyone on this trip and everyone available to us,” Smith said. “You just want everyone available to see where we are as an organization. These young guys need to play and you want to see them all together.”
Still injured and unavailable are defencemen Josh Brown and Nikita Zaitsev plus centres Colin White and Shane Pinto. Brown skated Friday and is expected back from a thumb injury next week. Zaitsev (heel injury) should check in by the end of the month while White (shoulder) could return in March. Pinto, after shoulder surgery, is expected to play before the end of the season.
With Forsberg still out, erstwhile No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray will get a chance at redemption following a tough start that has included two quarantines and a few injury issues. For now, Murray and Filip Gustavsson (who has tested positive twice) are the goalie tandem.
As they leave, the Sens may want to keep their blinders on. The big picture is jarring, and not just because of the number of games to be played.
Having had 10 games postponed, combined with just one victory in the month of November, the Senators are about as far behind the 8-ball as a team could be. To continue the billiards theme, they are all but snookered in the standings as they start up again.
With 20 points off 29 games played, the Senators don’t want to look to see that in the entire Eastern Conference, only the New Islanders have played fewer games and only the Montreal Canadiens have fewer points.
There is so much catching up to do that there is no point worrying about it. For now, it’s enough to get the band back together again. Playing games with a set roster will be a treat.
“It’s really nice to be back at the rink and be around the guys,” top-line centre Josh Norris put it, rather sweetly, after getting out of COVID jail Wednesday. “I missed them a lot.”
The feeling was mutual. Without Norris, the Senators got shelled in Toronto 6-0 last Saturday. Filling in for Norris, Stützle was -4, a bit of a welcome-to-the-NHL moment for a 19-year-old in his second season, while playing mostly left wing.
There will be some tough days ahead. Certainly there is injury risk with so many games in so few days.
But for the young Sens, getting back to playing trumps all else.
Bram on the lamb
Some of the most heartfelt NHL stories surround those selfless, salt-of-the-earth people who manage the equipment. They are guys who are up at dawn doing laundry and loading gear or setting up a dressing room on the road after a late-night flight.
A lovely story emerged from Thursday’s practice, out of, oddly enough, the positive Covid test of the head equipment manager, John Forget. Players arranged a deal -- if veteran grinder Austin Watson could score four goals in practice, equipment helper Bram Karp could join the team on the road for the first time this season. Maybe the fix was in, but it came down to the wire, and when Watson tucked in his fourth goal, on a shootout, the players celebrated wildly. A feel-good story for everyone.
“He does everything and anything for the guys,” Smith said of Karp. “From looking after their house, to the grass in the summertime, to vehicles, skates, everything.”
Senators pursue Kuzmenko
Several NHL teams have shown interest in KHL scoring star Andrei Kuzmenko, and Senators GM Pierre Dorion let it be known the Senators are one of them. In fact, Dorion spoke openly on Ottawa sports radio (TSN 1200) on Thursday about having spoken to Kuzemenko’s agent, Dan Milstein, just the night before. Ottawa hopes to have an inside track on Kuzmenko because he was a teammate of Zub with St Petersburg SKA for two seasons. Zub, of course, signed with the Sens in 2020 and quickly became their most dependable defender. Kuzmenko is a stylish winger with a nose for the net and the stats to match -- 19 goals and 52 points in 42 games played this season. That’s second in KHL scoring. He’s 25 and would sign a one-year entry level contract, meaning he won’t cost a ton of money. The key for the Senators is to sell Kuzmenko on the opportunity to play for a growing team.
Boucher skates with Belleville
When Tyler Boucher left Boston University over Christmas to sign with the Senators, the plan was for him to join the OHL's Ottawa 67’s. That remains the plan, although in the short term Boucher is going to practise with the AHL Belleville Senators while the 67’s schedule is on pause due to OHL COVID concerns. There is a chance Boucher could play a game or two for the B-Sens but the OHL has pledged to keep their season going, despite numerous game postponements, and Ottawa would like Boucher to get established with the 67’s once they start up again.