Building the Calgary Flames taxi squad for this season isn’t as simple as listing the organization’s top six prospects.
Until the playing status of the AHL is determined, the Flames will seek to balance the need for giving their top young players a place to continue developing, while also ensuring the next men up are as ready as possible to help the club win games.
But one thing is clear – no one should underestimate the importance of the four-to-six-player group that will practise and travel with the team in this sprint to the playoffs.
“There’s a high likelihood those players on the taxi squad are going to see action,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving, whose club will essentially battle every second night of the 116-day war of attrition.
“This is a like four-month playoff season, so with the wear and tear you’re going to go through players. You’re going to have injuries, that’s a given. They’ve been off a long time and then you’re right into it. With the competitiveness and playing the same teams over and over, depth is going to be really important.”
The Flames have as much depth as any team in the North Division, but we’re about to find out if that depth extends much past the 23-man roster that is easy to rhyme off.
With the higher likelihood of injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, the taxi squads were introduced for this 56-game season to help clubs replenish their rosters without having to summon players from AHL squads far away. In the case of western Canadian teams, AHL call-ups would have to come from affiliates in the U.S., where players would be subject to lengthy quarantine after crossing the border. Not ideal.
With some of the independently owned AHL franchises contemplating the reality that they may be better off shelving their team for a year, the feeder league’s decision on how, or if, it will move forward this year will play a crucial role in the Flames' taxi squad decisions.
“Do you want veterans on the taxi squad or younger guys who need development? That’s something we’ve been working through for weeks now,” said Treliving, who said the AHL is targeting an early February return, which won’t be confirmed until the end of this month.
“Those are players we have to be comfortable putting in the lineup. The goal is to have success, so you want players who can have as much success as possible. We want to give them every opportunity to develop so there could be a blend. With our young players we want them playing – that’s the tricky part. Until we know what is happening with the AHL it’s hard to wade through it.”
If the AHL is to shutter its season, the Flames will scramble to find some prospects places to play in Europe and the ECHL to continue their growth. Others will have to use their time on the big club’s taxi squad as a way to stay sharp.
An example of how hard these decisions are revolves around defenceman Connor Mackey, who the Flames signed out of college last spring. The Flames believe he is close to being NHL-ready but would love to see him get some AHL reps in before he’s asked to make the jump. If the AHL isn’t a possibility, is he best-served practicing daily with the Flames?
The taxi squad can be adjusted at any time and players demoted to it are subject to the same waiver wire rules as past AHL demotions.
It’s a longshot, but with the possibility that Canadian junior loops could be in jeopardy of returning, the Flames would also consider putting Connor Zary or Jakob Pelletier on the taxi squad if they came out of the World Juniors particularly hot. So many options.
Luckily, teams won’t have to make these hard decisions until the season starts Jan. 13. By then, players will have stated their cases in camp and the AHL’s status will be clearer.
Expect plenty of movement to and from taxi squads around the league as many teams are expected to use them on off days to regularly stash high-salaried players (who clear waivers) with an eye on saving cap space. (As per puckpedia.com, in a normal 186-day season, each day of the season represents 0.54% (1/186). This year the season is 116 days, so each day represents 0.86% (1/116). Therefore, accruing cap space earlier in the year or by having a lower cap hit on non-game days allows for even more cap hit to be added later in the year than in a normal season.)
It adds to the attractiveness of having taxi squad members who don’t have to go through waivers for demotion.
Before we look at a likely taxi squad, let’s list the 23-man roster the Flames will likely open with, barring injuries:
POSSIBLE TAXI SQUAD
Louis Domingue (G) – A goalie is required on the squad and with his NHL experience he’s a no-brainer.
Buddy Robinson (F) – A veteran minor leaguer at age 29 who didn’t look out of place when recalled last year. He has a one-way contract now and is a cinch to be included.
Byron Froese (F) – Another 29-year-old the Flames would be comfortable using in the lineup given his 110 games of NHL experience.
Glenn Gawdin (F) – The Flames believe the leading scorer in Stockton last year is ready to take the next step. He can play centre or wing, but his camp showing will be crucial.
Alexander Petrovic (D) – The 28-year-old has 263 NHL games under his belt and is capable of stepping into the lineup if needed.
Connor Mackey (D) – Ideally the college hotshot would be getting valuable reps in Stockton, but given how well he fit in during camp before the playoffs he can likely make the jump. A solid camp will help determine his fate.