Return of NHL taxi squads creates domino effect in minors

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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.”

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    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.

    Blackhawks, Athanasiou agree to 2-year, $8.5 million contract

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    CHICAGO — The rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks locked in one of their top scorers, agreeing to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with forward Andreas Athanasiou on Thursday.

    The 28-year-old Athanasiou tied for the team lead with 20 goals and ranked third with 40 points in his first season with Chicago. He matched career highs with four game-winning goals and three power-play goals.

    The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Athanasiou has 125 goals and 111 assists in 459 games with the Detroit Red Wings (2015-20), Edmonton Oilers (2020), Los Angeles Kings (2020-22) and Blackhawks.

    Chicago went 26-49-7 and finished last in the Central Division. The Blackhawks dealt Patrick Kane to the New York Rangers prior to the trade deadline and announced in April they would not re-sign Jonathan Toews, parting with two players who led them to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.