The Blackhawks exited the NHL’s holiday break only to encounter even more scheduling uncertainty.
The Hawks’ scheduled Tuesday home game against the Blue Jackets was postponed by the NHL late Sunday night, citing vague “COVID-related reasons.”
It’s unclear which team has the COVID-19 cases that prompted the postponement. The Jackets do have six players in COVID protocols, but all six have been there since before the holiday break started this past Tuesday. They practiced Sunday in Columbus with no new positive cases announced.
The Hawks, meanwhile, did not practice Sunday and thus weren’t required to announce any new positive cases. Defenseman Calvin de Haan was the only Hawks player in COVID protocol when the break started. The team remains scheduled to practice Monday morning at Fifth Third Arena.
The unexpected postponement now gives the Hawks at least four games — all at home — that need to be made up during the February window formerly set aside for the Olympics.
The league had already postponed 14 games scheduled for Monday, but that didn’t affect the Hawks. Conversely, their Tuesday matchup against the Jackets previously on track to be one of the guinea-pig games of the various new COVID-related rules the league instituted Sunday.
Most prominently, the taxi squads from last season temporarily will return between now and the All-Star break in early February.
Teams can assign up to six players to the taxi squad at a time, although they aren’t required to assign any if they want to keep their American Hockey League team flush with talent. There are a number of specific restrictions about which players are eligible for taxi-squad designation and how long each player can stay there (maximum of 20 days).
For salary-cap purposes, taxi-squad players will count as though they’re still in the AHL but will be present with the NHL team for immediate recalls.
Arguably more important, however, is a new roster emergency exception (REE) rule the NHL also created Sunday. The REE allows players with cap hits of less than $1 million to be recalled as replacements for NHL players who contract COVID without counting against the cap. Teams previously had to play one game short-handed before being eligible for emergency recalls.
That adjustment probably should have been put in place long ago, but it nonetheless should help outbreak-stricken teams avoid postponements, wage fair fights and not overwork their healthy players.
Stricter masking and distancing protocols implemented by the NHL shortly before the hastened holiday break will remain in place for at least the next few weeks, too.
From the Hawks’ perspective, those new roster flexibility-related rules might not seem particularly relevant because the team so far hasn’t had to deal with many of the COVID-related hardships other teams have.
But if an outbreak does occur this winter, the new rules should make it much more viable for them to keep playing games.
That’s the situation the Stars — the Hawks’ last opponent before the holiday break — found themselves in Sunday. Previously one of the few teams relatively untouched by COVID, they put Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen, Radek Faksa, Joel Kiviranta, Michael Raffl and two staff members in protocols after receiving their end-of-break test results.
The Hawks’ next game is now scheduled for Wednesday against the Jets in Winnipeg, but the Canadian border crossing could pose issues if the Hawks indeed do have a blossoming outbreak. The Hawks’ next scheduled games after that — Jan. 1 versus the Predators and Jan. 2 versus the Flames — are also against teams that entered the holiday break shut down due to large COVID outbreaks.