By Stephen Whyno
Larry Landon enjoyed watching two recent American Hockey League callups score in their NHL debuts. Adding to the fun: they did it against a team with a player who spent time in the ECHL.
“It’s wonderful to see,” the executive director of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association said. “It’s great for the players. Everybody aspires to get to the NHL, and whether it’s pandemic or not, they got a chance to play and show their skillset.”
Of course, somebody had to replace those players in the minor leagues, and with the NHL bringing back taxi squads amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, there’s been a ripple effect felt down the hockey food chain in North America.
Similar to last season, each of the NHL’s 32 teams can now carry up to six players on the taxi squad to prevent more virus postponements and fill lineups with 18 skaters and two goaltenders. That means nearly 200 open roster spots across the AHL, which is in turn pilfering players off ECHL clubs.
“There’s very much a domino effect,” AHL president and CEO Scott Howson said. “It’s really stretched our rosters from both ends. And then you just have to deal with it, and our teams are doing a good job of trying to find replacement players and getting through the games that they’re eligible to play.”
The AHL postponed 64 games and the ECHL 14 through Wednesday. And the required number of healthy bodies is lower than the NHL: roughly 15 skaters and two goalies for the AHL and 13 and two for the ECHL.
Those standards might still be too challenging with the NHL sucking up so many players. In the three days after taxi squads were reinstated Sunday, 55 players were called up from the ECHL to the AHL.
“When you flip the faucet on full tilt, that creates an issue,” ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said.
The flow of talent includes players on NHL contracts in the AHL and ECHL and others on minor league contracts. Positive COVID-19 test results have also led to teams in the 27-team ECHL drawing from the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Asked how long this was sustainable, Landon said, “It all depends if there’s players to play. ... It’s just going to be a lot of juggling, and who knows how long this is going to be for?”
Landon added that one of the positives is players can only be on the taxi squad for up to 20 consecutive days. It’s also only currently in place until the NHL All-Star break in early February, though it could be extended.
Taxi squads of up to eight players with at least one goaltender were used during the shortened 2021 season, which was also a strain on the AHL. The ECHL had several teams opt out of playing that season.
Days into the return of the taxi squad era, SPHL commissioner Doug Smith said his 11-team league has not been drastically affected yet. But the SPHL also allows games to be played at 4 on 4 if teams can’t get to 12 skaters apiece, and the hunt is on more than usual for on-ice talent.
“We’ve had teams in terms of finding bodies, former players, who maybe haven’t played competitive in two or three years,” Smith said. “Right now, it’s all hands on deck, and it’s finding players wherever you can just to get a competitive lineup night in and night out.”
Crelin and Smith pointed out that the NCAA granting an extra year of college eligibility has kept an entire swath of players from moving into the professional ranks. Pandemic restrictions have also made it difficult if not impossible to draw from Europe, so the pool is even smaller than usual.
It has set up a situation in which some players are bouncing back and forth between the AHL and ECHL where logistically possible and moving up from the SPHL when required. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly informed Howson before Christmas that the taxi squads were coming, and the work is ongoing to make sure the entire hockey ecosystem continues to function.
“Like I said to Scott and Ryan: We’re all in this together,” Landon said. “Obviously I have a job to do to protect the players, but they have to protect their teams and make sure they’re successful and they’re able to keep going forward as we’d all want.”