Exhausted senators face even more COVID-19 unrest
The old joke about Gary Bettman was that he searched for a tie every night.
Then, when overtime and shootouts knocked out the ties, the old NHL commissioner was happy to see the games go into overtime. Parity was his personal paradise. Even the introduction of the salary cap was designed in part to keep the playing field somewhat level.
Well, I wonder what Bettman thinks of his league these days, with teams having to fight with makeshift rosters, sometimes without even bodies hot enough to form four lines and three pairs of defense.
A mostly unrecognizable Montreal Canadiens team started Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers with 11 forwards and five defensemen – like a junior “C” or a high school roster. Unsurprisingly, the Habs lost 5-2 (it could easily have been 12-2). In their last two games, they have been outscored 9-2. Too little too late, the Canadiens were completely shut down for COVID reasons until Thursday and saw four home games postponed, January 4-10.
Misery loves company.
The Ottawa Senators traveled to an empty Scotiabank arena in Toronto on Saturday night with a 19-year-old as the first line center and guys named Clark Bishop, Logan Shaw and Adam Gaudette in their roster. Was it really a shock that they got their lunch offered by the Leafs, 6-0?
Go ahead, blame goalie Matt Murray, who has been in COVID-19 quarantine twice this season and hadn’t played an NHL game since November 24.
Blame the effort, which certainly didn’t match that of the unnamed Habs in Florida earlier today.
But the simple fact is that the competitive imbalance in the NHL is becoming a real problem. The Senators were missing almost all of their crosses – Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, Colin White and center / winger Nick Paul. Norris and Paul were added to the COVID protocol list ahead of Saturday’s game while Pinto and White are long-term injured. Sophomore Tim StÃ¼tzle only recently moved to center and was on the front row on Saturday – although coach DJ Smith luckily tried to get him away from the game against Auston Matthews.
Veteran center Chris Tierney and franchise defenseman Thomas Chabot were absent from training due to COVID “precautions” on Sunday and that shoe fell off on Monday. Chabot, Tierney, winger Zach Sanford and assistant coach Bob Jones have all been put on the protocol list. That’s nine players and one coach added to this roster in the last few days: Anton Forsberg, Tyler Ennis, Norris, Paul, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Dillon Heatherington, Chabot, Sanford, Tierney.
As of November, 10 Senators players and staff tested positive, causing operations to shut down for a week.
– Wayne Scanlan (@HockeyScanner) January 3, 2022
“I thought we were done with that,” Senators captain Brady Tkachuk grumbled on a Zoom call Monday.
Forgive me if I lost track, but I believe Tkachuk, StÃ¼tzle and Artem Zub are the only regulars who have NOT been on the protocol list at some point. A few replacements – namely Erik Brannstrom, Logan Shaw, Adam Gaudette and Lassi Thomson – also escaped without negative tests, but in most cases they wouldn’t be in Ottawa without the emergencies on the list.
No wonder Smith seems happy to say “there are only a few left” to test positive.
Once players are on the roster and have completed their quarantine, they do not need to be tested for 90 days. It is possible to get COVID-19 again, especially with the new Omicron variant. Goalkeeper Filip Gustavsson tested positive in Ottawa and later with AHL’s Belleville, but asymptomatic players who have been on the roster in the past may continue to play.
Tkachuk, who believes vaccinated players should be able to play with minor symptoms, added that players who tested positive now had mild symptoms “at most” and believed they should be able to compete.
In Monday practice, there were just 10 forwards on the ice and three crosses – Shaw, StÃ¼tzle and Gaudette. Winger Drake Batherson, who hasn’t held the position since a junior, has also taken a few center turns and could play there on the top line Thursday in Seattle if the game goes on.
Of course, the Ottawa players are saying all the right things about having to persevere.
âIt didn’t matter who was out, that there weren’t any fans, whatever it is, we’ve taken it one day at a time here over the past two seasons and there’s no excuse to pose like that, âsaid veteran winger Austin Watson after the rout of the Leafs.
Smith said the dismal game reminded him of the 4-0 loss to the Calgary Flames on November 14, when his pandemic-riddled team played their last game before being shut down for a week. Smith noted a similar lack of focus and energy on Saturday night.
The coach, however, made no secret of the staff losses.
“I’m just frustrated that we don’t have the players available to play,” Smith said on Sunday.
On Monday, Smith added, “We’re a .500 team when we’re healthy.” He was factoring in a booming Shane Pinto to start the season.
As Brannstrom ran the first power play on Monday and defenseman Michael Del Zotto and forward Scott Sabourin were recalled from Belleville to become the Ottawa Senators again, Smith spoke about the opportunity for the substitutes. Almost too many to name them.
âYou find out what you have,â Smith said. “Guys get thrown over there.”
In an effort to save the season and maintain some sort of regular schedule, the league is more likely to allow games between ravaged rosters than those that face âCanadian participation restrictions,â such as the home dates of the players. Senators. Like the Leafs, Ottawa can’t have more than 1,000 fans at a home game, at least for the next few weeks.
This combination of factors, most of them related to COVID, served to ambush a Senators team who, not too long ago, were lauded for putting together a cute little December, a record of 5-3-1 after scoring just one win in November. That decent run ended abruptly when the NHL ended its schedule after a Dec. 18 game in Philadelphia.
Now things have turned from bad to worse. Players continue to follow the COVID protocol and there must be a question (what else new?)
The Senators won’t be in hell forever. https://t.co/Gz6RQngklg
– Wayne Scanlan (@HockeyScanner) January 3, 2022
Not only will Ottawa be short of players, some of those regaining health would have difficulty crossing the border from Seattle to Vancouver due to quarantine rules. Thus, the Senators may not play again until Saturday against the Canucks. As always, stay tuned for developments.
No one expected there to be such a difficult season as the pandemic shortened 2020-21 campaign, but in many ways 2021-22 is worse. At least the teams have played those 56 games, while still being toasty in a narrow bubble and playing in mostly empty arenas. This season, while trying to get back to something closer to normal, the result has been a morale-crushing stop-and-start program with no rhythm and no confidence in scheduled games.
Good news. With the Senators having been hit so hard by positive tests in November and early January, there’s a good chance they’ll have a healthy, contributory roster for the remaining months of their schedule. Until then, it will be another team’s turn to experience the turmoil.