“It’s a purgatory of sorts, not a place for young developing players—even if they’re your most likely substitutes. But this is also a necessity given the circumstances,” was how a U.S.-based NHL executive framed the concept of teams carrying four-to-six-man taxi squads for the 2020-21 season.
Those were 27 words well spent.
To start with, the executive is right about how essential having a taxi squad is. Even with team personnel and players abiding by all precautions they’re expected to abide by, a COVID-19 outbreak is an ever-present possibility that must be accounted for in order to avoid postponing or canceling games. And knowing that one positive test could force several others who were in contact into quarantine, it makes carrying a sizeable squad of extra players a must.
But he’s also right about the limbo factor, and about not wanting to ice out any players. Especially young ones who need to be playing games.
If you’re the Montreal Canadiens, for example, the last place you want to see Noah Juulsen—a 23-year-old defenceman who lost a tonne of playing time to vision issues and recurring migraines over the last two seasons—is stuck in between the NHL and AHL, practising but not playing. Ditto for 23-year-old Cale Fleury, who could prove to be the next-best option after seven defencemen are named to Montreal’s active roster.
Will it even be seven?
For a Canadiens team up against the salary cap’s $81.5-million upper limit, the taxi squad also represents an opportunity to move money off the books and better optimize day-to-day management, making it entirely conceivable Montreal will only carry 12 forwards, six defencemen and two goaltenders on some (many) days.
That means we’re bound to see a lot of movement between the NHL, the taxi squad and the AHL. It’s going to be fluid.
Granted, it won’t be a free-for-all. A player that is waiver-eligible must pass through waivers before moving from the NHL roster to the taxi squad or to the AHL.
But with half the league’s teams either currently over the cap or within $1.5 million of it, and with a handful of others on internal budgets limiting their spending power, the ability to take on money without sending any back is muted. We’re not suggesting a really good player hitting the waiver wire won’t be exposed; it’s just that the risk is slightly more mitigated than it has been in recent years.
But it’s still a risk.
Are the Canadiens going to risk losing Juulsen for nothing just to park him on their practice squad? Probably not.
Meanwhile, on the purgatory front, imagine how it will feel for a player like Xavier Ouellet—a 27-year-old defenceman on a two-way contract—practising for weeks on end as a taxi squad member and then watching Juulsen get called up from the AHL to play because a Canadiens defenceman has gone down with an injury. NHL per diem to go with his $425,000 AHL salary isn’t going to make up for being forced to the sidelines and then stepped over.
Imagine how Charles Hudon would feel about being in that situation after years of being an AHL star who can’t seem to crack the Canadiens top-nine forward group.
Sidebar: It’s going to be tough for any player who hasn’t played games for weeks to prove himself a better option than a player who’s been playing regularly in the AHL.
This would be less of an issue for players on teams that have AHL affiliates in separate cities/countries, but Place Bell is within biking distance of the Bell Centre.
Players like Gustav Olofsson, Otto Leskinen, Alex Belzile and Lukas Vejdemo, who all appeared in games with the Canadiens last year, are also likely candidates for some taxi-squad time. That means time away from a Laval Rocket team in need of their services.
Maybe, on one hand, Jordan Weal helps the Canadiens limit how many players they’re taking away from Laval on any given day. The versatile forward would likely have semi-permanent residence on the taxi squad.
The depth the Canadiens bought over the off-season already relegated Weal to the fringe of the roster, and his $1.4-million was likely already destined for the AHL just to clear some much-needed space.
But he’s an experienced NHLer at the ready, so keeping him on the taxi squad makes sense.
Maybe Weal sees this as a way to stay closer to the big club and is okay with it. Or maybe he’d prefer to be playing games than watching them.
The Canadiens probably want an established NHLer like him nearby, but maybe they want him in Laval, where he can help the Rocket secure a playoff position.
We don’t know, but we’re just outlining some realities the players are facing and some of the thinking that needs to go into the day-to-day management of the roster, the taxi squad and the AHL affiliate.
Another thing to be carefully considered is what to do with the goaltenders now that the NHL team must carry three at all times.
The Canadiens signed Vasili Demchenko and traded for Jake Allen this off-season, crowding the creases for both themselves and the Rocket, with Carey Price already in place in Montreal and Charlie Lindgren, Cayden Primeau and Michael McNiven in Laval. It seemed like a problem for about a minute, until you started to consider how quickly that depth can thin out.
The NHL team will be mandated to carry three goaltenders—one of which can be on the taxi squad—and the AHL team will probably have to do the same.
Lindgren’s the obvious choice for a taxi-squad designation with Montreal, with Demchenko yet to make his North American debut and Primeau and McNiven needing game-action.
But we shouldn’t gloss over how tough of a spot that puts Lindgren in—especially since he’s on an expiring contract and desperately wants to prove he’s a capable NHL goaltender.
That’s just a sample of the complexities both teams and players will have to navigate with the institution of taxi squads.