Maple Leafs @ Vancouver Canucks

Sunday, April 18, 7:00 p.m. on Sportsnet
Tuesday, April 20,  9:00 p.m. on Sportsnet

The Canucks play their first game back from a layoff after nearly the entire team, the Taxi Squad and the coaching staff were infected with a variant form of COVID-19.

As of Saturday, all but two Canucks players are off the NHL COVID Protocol list. The Canucks’ AHL affiliate is in Utica, New York, so unlike most of the rest of the NHL teams in Canada, they can’t recall players at will. They recalled Kole Lind on April 2, and Jack Rathbone on Friday. Rathbone won’t be available yet, and it’s not known at this time how many players are actually medically fit to play. Conditioning is going to be an issue for all of them, of course, even those who never were sick.

The state of the players is a mystery since the Canucks have barred all media from practices since their return. The PHWA has protested this.

They are correct that the closed practices are a violation of the NHL’s rules. Reports indicate this was not a move the players requested, and was a management decision. The implication that the media might not take into consideration the physical toll of COVID-19 seems particularly without merit, but could be an idea born out of concern for the players or out of a desire to hide how bad off everyone still is.

Travis Green describes the situation prior to their extra two days off as “players not always able to make it through a practice”.

This section contains a little discussion about the mental state of the players and will leave you boggling at that original schedule the NHL set for the team’s return:

The Canucks also have a host of injuries with Micheal Ferland, Jay Beagle, Elias Pettersson and Justin Bailey all on LTIR, and Tanner Pearson on IR. They have the cap space for callups, but they aren’t well stocked in that regard, and they have the border issue to consider.

As of Saturday, Nils Hoglander had come off the COVID protocol list, but Nate Schmidt and Jake Virtanen remain on it. We don’t know if Hoglander will play, since it is likely he could not practice yesterday due to the timing of coming off the list, although that remains unknown at this time.

The Canucks, like the Flames and the Oilers, had a decision to make in the offseason: Leave their AHL teams in America or temporarily move them. The Flames chose to move their team, and it’s very possible the Canucks are sorry they didn’t do the same right now.

Compounding that choice is news that the Utica team ownership — they are one of a dozen independently owned AHL teams — is moving towards a switch to operate as the franchise of the Devils. This is not official, but all signs point to it happening.

The Canucks are said to be looking to have an affiliate in Canada next year.

A lot of hockey ops choices teams make are driven by money concerns, and as Leafs fans, we get used to the idea that the Leafs don’t actually print money, but their parent company prints the phone and cable bills that make the Leafs rich. Choices about how big a prospect pool to maintain and whether or not to own the AHL affiliate outright can and do have game-level consequences. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the Canucks could be working through this more easily if their AHL team was in Vancouver directly operated by them.

Or, of course, they might be shut down like the Marlies are.

As for how the Canucks players feel about all this, it’s likely very individual. But they’ve been out of playoff contention since three weeks into the season, even if players don’t always admit that out loud. For them, the games are meaningless to all but pride.  Very few players have spoken to the media beyond the captain Brandon Sutter quoted above. So nothing is really known about how the players feel about any of this or, of course, who is even at practice.

We have no lines or real clarity on the playing roster at time of publication beyond this and assurance the Canucks have a full playing roster:

Meanwhile in Leafs news, Sheldon Keefe is being cagey about it, but William Nylander and Auston Matthews should both return. William Nylander said he had no issues with conditioning while he was in quarantine, and he has not been ill in any way. The lines at yesterday’s practice were:

Alex Galchenyuk - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Nick Robertson - John Tavares - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Zach Hyman
Joe Thornton - Jason Spezza - Wayne Simmonds
Pierre Engvall looks to be a healthy scratch at this point, along with Adam Brooks

Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Travis Dermott - Zach Bogosian
All of Martin Marincin, Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin are on the trip, but not expected to join the lineup anytime soon.

Jack Campbell - confirmed starter
David Rittich

With Nick Robertson remaining in the top six (at least to start) the game will at least be a treat from that perspective. The word is, new players may join the Leafs in Winnipeg once they’ve been seen by staff in Toronto.

Lines are always subject to change, but that’s a much more exciting lineup than fumbled through the last game.