With a tentative deal reached between the NHL and the NHLPA on the protocols and rules for the coming NHL season, all we can do now is wait for the votes and the release of the new, latest Memo of Understanding on the CBA extension. And speculate. We can also speculate.
The broad strokes of what is going to be the weirdest NHL season since 2013, and maybe since WWII, are now well known. The question we want to know is, not what are the New York Islanders going to do, but how does this affect the Leafs.
The plan is to fit 56 games in a schedule over an unknown number of days between January 13 and sometime that allows for the playoffs to be over by early July. Rumours of a heavily compressed schedule full of back-to-back games ignores the reality that holes have to be left to reschedule games that get postponed because of positive tests for Coronavirus.
Every league playing in Europe has had to postpone games and fill in their normally scheduled breaks with replacement games. Some have had to pause operations for weeks at a time. The exact same problem has plagued the QMJHL, even in Atlantic Canada.
The Leafs might see a lot of closely scheduled action against Ottawa and Montréal, but there will need to be breaks built into the schedule. And we will all need to realize that positive tests will happen.
The deal isn’t final yet, as the NHL is trying to get some unknown set of agreements from Canadian governments, but the move to the USA plan was never to be taken seriously. The All-Canada division, hey, is there any reason why we can’t call it the Maple Leaf Division? The leaf is right there on the flag, so I think we should. Anyway, the Maple Leaf Division is the division with all the travel in it. The hosers are getting hosed here.
There is an assumption that play will occur only within divisions, at least at first, but possible for the full season. To see how this might work, let’s assume that’s true, and it likely will be in the Maple Leaf Division. There’s also only seven teams in Canada, so this is the math (I’ve seen so many wrong versions of this, it’s actually kind of sad):
Divisions with eight teams (the ones we don’t care about) will see teams play each other eight times. They each have seven opponents, and seven times eight is... I trust you to multiply that on your own.
The Maple Leaf Division will see each team play the others 9.33333 times. There has been persistent rumours that the Maple Leaf Division will have an imbalanced schedule regionally, so to make those numbers come out even, you can imagine that teams play each other nine times and then the Leafs would play the Sens and the Habs once more. I think that adds up, but it would be something like that at any rate.
Now I understand why we signed Scott Sabourin. We don’t want him showing up in the Sens lineup 10 times. Ai yi yi 10 Sens games.
TAXI SQUADS WHEEEEE
Okay, I hate that name, and I also hate the glee this concept has been met with, so I am here to rain on this taxi parade.
The NHL was made to realize (this is clear from reporting on negotiations) that the players were not going to let them put an elastic waistband on the salary cap and have it expand to hold this extra set of players. So, the concept has morphed into what amounts to a practice squad like what I think football uses (I know nothing about football) and a temp AHL holding pen.
The player limit is going to be small, and the latest number is four to six. The players will be paid their AHL salaries* which will not count against the cap. They will travel and practice with the team, but need to be called up in the usual manner** to be put in a game.
* Two-way contracts have a separate, lower minors salary. One-way contracts pay a player the same amount in either location. Teams will not be allowed to bury big contracts and circumvent the cap.
** There is an expectation that the fairly complex emergency recall rules (used for when a team’s roster drops below the minimum of 18 skaters and 2 goalies) will be adjusted.
There is also some indication that the number of days a player is allowed to sit without playing on this expanded pressbox crew will be limited in some way. There is no clarity yet at all around how waivers will work.
As we know, the Leafs will only be able to run a 21-man roster most of the season. If waiver rules allow it, keeping the taxi squad understaffed so one of those players can be papered down and back up on off days will help with the deadline cap space. The other likely use of the squad will be for the very boring extra defender and forward who would be there anyway if the cap wasn’t so tight. So before you dream dreams of whatever prospect you love getting in the show and proving to Babcock, er Keefe that he is a real player, uh... think Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen or Travis Boyd. Particularly once the AHL season is underway.
The other man almost certain to spend the season driving a cab is Aaron Dell. He could much more easily by rotated in to take some games, as backup or in net, to keep him eligible to be there, and he’s actually useful on a road trip! Jack Campbell’s salary is not fully buriable, so it’s fairly likely the 21st man, a skater, will get shifted over for Dell to come on and play.
The taxi squad is not going to solve a lot of problems for many teams. It might give the Detroit Red Wings and the Los Angeles Kings some opportunities to play prospects, but unless the movement of players from the NHL playing roster to this squad is waiver exempt, it will mostly serve as a quasi AHL in the period before that league starts up, and it will help the Canadian teams whose AHL squad is in the USA.
The Leafs will be happy to have Dell on hand, however. They wanted this last season, and the big change that might persist out of this season is giving teams access at practices to a goalie they can use who is not their starter.
The taxi squad will have a much larger impact on the AHL than it will the NHL. Teams will need more AHL goalies (the Leafs have taken care of this), and they may need more skaters (the Leafs have yet to sort this out, so I’m telling you there’s a very good chance they sign Frederik Gautheir to an AHL deal).
Player Opt Out
There is going to be provisions to allow players to opt out of this season. There is also solid information that their contracts will carry over to the 2021-2022 season. Species reminded me of the story of Evgeni Nabokov, who was picked up by the Islanders on re-entry waivers and refused to play for them. We feel you, Evgeni, we wouldn’t either. His one-year deal he’d just signed carried over a season after the Islanders suspended him, and he ended up playing for them after all, but he missed a year. That’s the sort of process that will cover players who opt out.
Teams won’t be able to pressure a player to opt out to get out of their expiring contracts. They might suddenly have cap space this season if someone declines to play, however.
Playoffs will likely be top four in each division, with the first rounds producing an in-division champion. That means one Canadian team will be in the semifinals.
How does all this affect the Leafs? They have one job: win the Maple Leaf Division, and then ride on to glory. We’ll show them all! We’ll win the Stanley Cup in the second year there is no parade!