COVID has made the situation around the NHL very difficult. An already tight schedule of 56 games starting last January was made even tighter when some teams had to postpone several games and shut down their entire operations for days or weeks at a time. The Vancouver Canucks have had to shut down for three weeks due to a Variance (Brazilian) making its way through the team and staff, as well as their family. Those teams’ schedule has now become a nightmare for players who simply don’t get the necessary rest in between games to recuperate as needed at the highest level of hockey in the world.
Veterans players are the ones suffering the most of this gruelling schedule. When you’re young, your body can recuperate rather quickly. But for veterans, what used to take hours to recuperate from now takes days, even weeks. It’s not just fatigue here, which is a huge factor in itself. We’re talking nagging injuries. We’re talking aches and pains. Proper time in between games relieves stress on the body and allows it to heal itself. When you keep pressing on a bruise, it will take much longer to heal than if you let it rest, right? Imagine something more serious…
Lack of foresight
When the NHL and NHLPA negotiated their return to work for the 2021 season, they weren’t thinking straight. They didn’t look at the implication such a tight schedule, with the risk of teams being shut down, would have on the players and the teams. There were just looking to get back on the ice and save a few sponsorship dollars. That’s right. Money over common-sense. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
The implementation of the Taxi Squad was not a bad idea if, for nothing else, to have players in the team’s COVID bubble. But it is far from serving the purpose it was intended for. With already about half the teams tight against the salary cap, the NHL didn’t raise the cap (at least for this season) to allow those teams a cushion for players to be called up. Teams cannot call up players from the Taxi Squad or their AHL affiliates because they don’t have cap space to do so… unless there’s an injury. So how can they give players some much needed rest? They can’t.
Further, by keeping the number of call-ups to four, the same as a normal season, teams’ hands are tied when it comes to making a rotation of players in and out of their line-up. The NHLPA wanted that because they feel it would give players a chance to get picked off waivers. The reality is that teams simply stick to their roster instead and let spare players rot on the Taxi Squad instead. So players on the roster get exhausted, players in the AHL or the Taxi Squad can’t play unless there’s an injury and the quality of the on-ice product is diminished due to players running out of steam. Basically, players are getting minor league salary and not playing because if all of that, missing out on NHL money and games.
The Weber situation
During the media availability yesterday, Canadiens’ captain Shea Weber was asked specifically about his own play. His reply drew quite the negative response on Twitter:
People read what they want in such a short and straight answer. Many, for some odd reason, feel like Weber didn’t hold himself accountable. It’s mind boggling really because who’s to say that deep down, he doesn’t know his play isn’t up to par and taking it seriously? People think players are idiots but by doing so, it exposes their own lack of good judgment. If one thinks for a second that a player like Weber doesn’t hold himself accountable, they’re the idiots. It’s either that or they play dumb only because they want to use his short answers to suit their narrative against the player, against the team… as they do with Carey Price. Your pick.
Short term solution?
Everyone knows that Weber hasn’t been playing well. He’s the first one to know it folks. He doesn’t have to admit it to the media or to the fans. It’s internal, not public. This guy, like Price by the way, has very high expectations of himself and when he doesn’t play well, no one knows it more than him. Since fatigue, and perhaps injuries, are affecting him, the coaching staff has to find ways to give him a bit more rest.
I remember back when the Canadiens sent Guy Carbonneau and Larry Robinson to Florida for a week during the season to rest. Of course, the Habs can’t do that this year but they must find a way. Let those veterans skip a practice a week. Don’t even come to the rink. Give them the odd night off every couple of weeks, not as a punishment, but proper rest.
Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson, the Canadiens’ two trade deadline acquisitions, will be available to play. As the Canadiens are close to the cap and are limited with their number of call-ups, why not then dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen? Merrill can take some time killing penalties away from Weber, keeping him fresher. Gustafsson would be a good powerplay point partner on Weber’s PP unit. It would allow the captain to get lower for a one-timer while still having a defenseman at the blue line. That would be one way to limit his ice time too, hopefully allowing him to be more efficient when on the ice.
Shea Weber, contrarily to popular belief, is not finished. Far from there. People need to remember that this is no usual season. There is no doubt that he’s on the down side of his career. But he still has a lot of good hockey left in him and when the NHL returns to its usual activities and scheduling, he will be able to better contribute. I strongly believe that. But in the meantime, take a deep breath Habs’ fans. Enjoy the ride. Get some fresh air and remember that hockey is entertainment. It’s not worth you losing sleep over and certainly not worth going on a witch hunt against the team, the players, the coaches or the GM. Life is good. Go Habs Go!