In some ways, the NHL is just another business suffering from supply chain issues.
Like the consumers still waiting for their couches, TVs and cars to get delivered, hockey fans are left wondering when they can use their holiday hockey tickets while the NHL wrestles with ‘labour shortages’ and transport/venue challenges.
For COVID-19 and business reasons, hockey games are being delayed, postponed and classified as TBA. That 2021-22 master NHL schedule you downloaded and saved is not worth the sheet of paper you printed it on. Toss it in the kindling pile.
As just one example, the month of February for the Ottawa Senators looks like a former Olympic-break-turned-blank-canvas, to be painted on with dates. January isn’t much more defined.
On Jan. 1, the Senators are supposed to play their first game in two weeks, against the Maple Leafs in Toronto. That remains on the docket at this writing. Ditto for the Jan. 3 game versus Minnesota in Ottawa. As we know, things can change in a hurry.
Crossing borders is risky in terms of Omicron variant transmission and Canadian rinks are sketchy because of crowd restrictions.
The NHL went so far as to put that last aspect in a headline: ‘Nine games cancelled due to Canadian attendance restrictions.’ The idea is to put off dates in the hope that in a few weeks time, teams will be able to play games in front of larger crowds.
You know, because the pandemic has been so predictable and the future is always better.
The NHL’s plan is far from perfect and the situation remains fluid, but with the new changes to quarantine rules (five days instead of ten), and the likelihood of lowered case numbers after the holiday spike, the hope is that games can become a real thing again. The league is going to lean heavily on that once-blank slate of February, which had been set aside for the Olympic hockey tournament, now a non-NHL event.
Asked for his confidence level that their postponed games can be slotted in without taxing his team, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion replied: “very confident. Very confident.”
Speaking on a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday, Dorion said that the league has been in regular contact with Senators president Anthony Leblanc about building availability.
Mind you, those games are piling up like storage containers at a jammed global port. With the postponement of the New Year’s Eve game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Canadian Tire Centre, Ottawa now has eight games to make up, dating back to the first pause in November, owing to the Covid outbreak among the Senators. The Sens have played 28 games, the second-least in the Atlantic Division.
“We had quite a long break in February (built in),” Dorion said, “And a lot of these postponed games are at home – except for one game.”
That would be the one in Washington, which had been scheduled for Dec. 27. The other seven are in Ottawa, which not only lessens travel concerns but could boost revenues if the crowd restrictions were to be lifted by February. There is no guarantee of that.
Meanwhile, the Senators skate around in circles at daily practice, having no clue how to prepare for the next game without knowing where or when or against whom that next game will be.
As forward Drake Batherson said this week, the team is “getting ready for whenever we play again.”
Head coach D.J. Smith tried to “mimic NHL shifts” with Wednesday’s practice, aiming to at least get his players up to game speed, if not in the games themselves yet.
It would be nice to start up without stopping shortly thereafter, but by now the players know the drill – expect to have games added or scratched on short notice.
Few players have been through the level of ordeal of goaltender Matt Murray this season. As he spoke on Tuesday, he was coming off his second ten-day quarantine, one while a member of the Ottawa Senators and the other with the team’s AHL affiliate in Belleville, which was ravaged with cases while on the road before Christmas.
While Murray only tested positive once, in November with Ottawa, he had to quarantine along with the Belleville group because he was traveling with the B-Sens after being demoted in late November. Tuesday was his first time back on the ice in ten days – this goalie who has been sidelined repeatedly this season due to illness or injury. He has made just six starts in Ottawa, with zero wins, and played only twice with Belleville because of the Covid outbreak.
Small wonder Murray looked a bit like Boo Radley, the To Kill a Mockingbird recluse, when he emerged into the daylight the other day.
“I have a gym at home, so I was able to stay in pretty good shape,” Murray said. “But it’s hard to emulate practices or games. Especially for a goalie. It’s such a different type of conditioning. It’s nice that we have at least three days (or perhaps many more) before our next game, to take advantage of this practice time and really get back into it.”
Senators goalies have been a particular COVID-19 target. Filip Gustavsson has experienced two positive test results, one in Ottawa and the other in Belleville. Gustavsson returned to the practice ice on Wednesday. On a Zoom call, Gustavsson said his symptoms were milder the second time around, more like a cold for a few days, and he was riding a stationary bike by Day 4.
Anton Forsberg, the Senators saviour during a winning stretch of games in December, is the latest goaltender to be added to the protocols list – he went on it Monday and will benefit from the string of postponements.
The team focus now will be getting Murray sorted out. The 27-year-old with the $6.25M contract said more than once in Tuesday’s availability that he relished his time in Belleville working with his old pal, goalie coach Justin Peters. Murray was 1-1 with the B-Sens, on a .918 save percentage and 2.55 goals-against.
Head coach Smith, himself just back from a case of Covid, vows to make Murray a priority.
“We’ll do everything we can to set him up for success,” Smith said.
Dorion echoed that sentiment.
“Having a goalie of his calibre, and what he’s done before, it’s great to have him back,” Dorion said. “Unfortunately, we wanted him to go down there and get a lot of playing time, but he got a lot of practice time so hopefully we get to see the Matt Murray that won two Cups (with Pittsburgh).”
What a boost it would be to have Murray play to the level of late last season, instead of the inconsistent goaltender he has been for most of his time in Ottawa.
Boucher leaves BU, signs with Ottawa
Senators forward prospect Tyler Boucher has left Boston University, and can be expected to suit up with the OHL Ottawa 67’s in the near future.
After a challenging start to his NCAA season, Boucher and his family decided that Boston University is not the best place for his development – this after just 17 games with BU. Boucher, 18, Ottawa’s 10th overall pick in last summer’s draft, was not getting a lot of ice time and had recorded just three points, two goals and one assist.
A three-year entry-level contract was announced Tuesday. In the event the OHL gets shut down due to a Covid outbreak, the Senators could opt to have Boucher play in the AHL with Belleville. The preference, though, is to have Boucher play among his peers in junior hockey.
The native of Haddonfield, NJ is known for his physical play, should be a good fit for the OHL, and Dorion spoke of him as the kind of winger Ottawa will need when it becomes a playoff team again.
“He’s a power forward who plays a heavy, physical game,” Dorion said. “He’s driven, is strong with the puck, has a big shot and goes hard to the net.”
Players take different paths, and while the college route was beneficial to Senators like Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris, others need a different environment. Boucher, the son of former NHL goaltender Brian Boucher, was apparently not a fan of college and classes and only went to school to respect the wishes of his parents, according to Brian Boucher.
With the 67’s, Tyler Boucher will be in good hands. GM James Boyd and head coach Dave Cameron, busy at the moment leading Canada at the world juniors, are both on board with adding Boucher to their Ottawa roster.
Though he is said to be healthy and fit, Boucher did have a positive COVID-19 test recently and will not arrive in Canada until Jan. 6. Initially, he will be assigned to Belleville, with the intent of joining the 67’s when they start back up.