VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks are staring at a border wall more formidable and imposing than anything you’ll find on the Rio Grande.
Skates or no skates, no hockey player is going to simply shimmy up and over Canada’s 14-day quarantine requirement that essentially cuts off the National Hockey League team from its minor-league affiliate in Utica.
Vancouver is not close to upstate New York, but the Utica Comets have never looked farther away.
As a Canadian NHL team with a farm team in the United States, the Canucks head towards the season at a distinct disadvantage.
Quarantine requirements for international travellers in the time of COVID-19 make it impossible for the Canucks to speedily access minor-league players if there is urgent need for lineup help.
This makes the six-man “taxi squad” the NHL will allow this season vitally important to the Canucks — as well as the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, the only other NHL teams in this geo-political predicament.
For the Canucks, the taxi squad pretty much replaces the Comets as their farm team this season.
Sure, if a player in Vancouver goes down with a season-ending injury, the Canucks can call up a player from their American League team and have him spend two weeks in a hotel room before he gets even a minute of NHL practice time.
But in an emergency or for any pressing lineup need, the Canucks’ depth pool consists solely of those 4-6 players on their taxi squad.
This presumes, of course, that the AHL actually operates this season.
“There are a million things like that that we could talk about, but this is the way it is,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “I can see where you are going with this. With development, it’s not a perfect situation. But everybody is in the same boat and doing the best they can.”
But most of the NHL is in a much bigger, nicer boat.
In the all-Canadian North Division, which is expected to be hyper competitive, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets all operate domestic farm teams nearby. Pending waiver requirements, they can quickly move players between not only their NHL rosters and taxi squads, but the taxi squads and their minor-league teams.
Vancouver can not.
“We don’t know for sure yet about the American League,” Benning said. “It is what it is. Everybody is trying hard. We are in a trying time for everybody, especially outside of hockey. These are the rules and we will abide by them and we’ll do the best we can.”
At the end of training camp in January, Canucks coach Travis Green’s most difficult choices probably won’t be who makes the 23-man NHL roster, but who gets to hang around on the taxi squad in what is essentially an expanded 29-player pool on the Canadian side of the border.
The challenge when selecting the taxi squad — and the risk — is finding a balance between NHL-ready players and those still developing. Experienced minor leaguers Justin Bailey and Tyler Graovac, for example, may be better equipped to help the NHL team in January than, say, rookie forwards Nils Hoglander and Marc Michaelis. But the younger players have great upside and would benefit being around the NHL team this season.
Rookie defenceman Olli Juolevi is expected to make the Canucks roster, and minor-leaguer Jalen Chatfield could, too. But the two prospects right behind them, Brogan Rafferty and Jack Rathbone, have only one season of pro hockey between them.
The Canucks’ taxi squad could be exceedingly young.
The most certain member of the six subs will be third-string goalie Michael DiPietro, who has had only one AHL season but is an injury to Thatcher Demko or Braden Holtby away from playing. Whether on their NHL roster or the taxi squad, all NHL teams must carry three goalies this season.
“In a perfect world, we’d want Mike playing every night (in the AHL),” Benning said. “But we have to travel with three goalies. We’re not going to go out right now and sign a veteran goalie because, under the circumstances, we don’t know yet when the AHL is going to play.”
Or if it’s going to play.
There is a key salary-cap perk to the taxi squad system that the Canucks will also miss out on. Teams can “paper” players in and out of their NHL rosters to accrue incremental cap savings — swap a fat NHL salary for an entry level one for one or two days here or there. But the Canucks can’t do this because they are expected to operate this season under long-term injured reserve provisions.
Micheal Ferland going to LTIR due to chronic concussion issues would make Vancouver salary-cap compliant, but it would also disqualify them from building savings in order to have more salary space available at the trade deadline in April.
Yes, it’s an extraordinary time.