As it stands right now, the Vancouver Canucks are going to face the best player in the world Friday night with a roster that is the NHL equivalent of a beer league team that is missing a couple of guys because they have to work late and another couple because they’re being dragged to the annual bridal show.
OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but not so much so that you can afford to pass up a golden lead like that one. The Canucks insist they’ll have 20 NHL-caliber players in the lineup when they face the Edmonton Oilers Friday night, 22 days after they played their last game. Almost all of them will be Canuck regulars as they’ve worked their way through COVID protocols to return to play. In fact, on Wednesday, nine players came off the Canucks' COVID list, including goalies Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby, as well as captain Bo Horvat. But they’ll also be a shell of their usual selves. It will likely be the equivalent of a team that is playing for the Stanley Cup and in mid-season form playing one that is suiting up for its first pre-season game.
And everyone seems to be OK with that. The NHL, which is insisting that each team play 56 games this season, certainly wants it. The Canucks, who don’t want to be saddled with unfulfilled sponsorship and broadcasting commitments next season, seem eager to play. And the NHL Players’ Association is also signing off of a scheme that will see a team ravaged by COVID play 19 games in 31 nights, despite the fact it is pretty much out of the playoff race.
“By (Thursday), their ‘full team’ will be healthy and cleared,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TheHockeyNews.com in an email. “So we don’t see any additional risks from a health/COVID standpoint. From a scheduling standpoint, their remaining schedule is challenging, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. Very similar compression to what a number of other teams have faced this year, and, quite frankly, what all teams face in Olympic years. But most importantly, the team wants to finish its season. We aren’t twisting arms here. Everything, including resumption date and various other critical aspects of their remaining schedule, were done entirely collaboratively and with club input and consent.”
But even if you take COVID out of the equation entirely, the league and the organization are asking a group of players that essentially hasn’t done anything in three weeks to be up to speed in the best league in the world on a compressed schedule. Ten of those 31 days will be consumed with back-to-back games. It’s important to note that the Canucks and the NHL are following the league protocols to the letter here. The bulk of the players and coaching staff who tested positive did so as of April 2 and it’s expected the bulk of those players will be back in the lineup by Friday. But they’ll also be back with minimum practice time and preparation.
And as we’ve seen in other sports, even the best young and well-conditioned athletes in the world who have come back after bouts with COVID were depleted forms of their former selves. This could get ugly. Probably not Washington Capitals circa 1976 ugly, but if the Canucks weren’t out of the playoff picture before this happened, it likely won’t be long before they’re officially making their off-season plans.
Which begs one very simple question. Why? The Canucks essentially aren’t playing for anything. And as much as you want the integrity of the season to be maintained, what’s the value in watching guys pile up points against a depleted roster? The night after the Canucks play the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl-led Oilers, they go up against the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner led Toronto Maple Leafs. It will be a brutal month for a group of players that has been through the wringer, both mentally and physically.
It’s been an exceptional season, one that everyone involved in the game hopes will never be repeated. The league has lost more than a billion dollars in revenues and the players, who are partners with the league, have a huge financial stake in seeing this season played out to its completion. It will take years for the league to recover financially from this. And that’s why the Vancouver Canucks are playing hockey. It’s about money. That’s why the NHL made the Oilers play a game the same day they held a memorial service for Colby Cave. From a financial perspective, perhaps there’s some justification given the dire circumstances, but how do you weigh that against the long-term ramifications on the players who are coming back to play?
The Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils, to a far lesser extent, went through this earlier in the season. But if the Canucks can somehow limp across the finish line and play 56 games, each one of their players should have a share in the 2021 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.