The NHL said it expects to release a revised schedule Friday. Including that day’s scheduled game against the Edmonton Oilers, the Canucks will have missed at least seven games out of a compressed 56-game slate. The regular season, which began Jan. 13, was originally set to end May 8, but Vancouver’s travails prompted the league to push back that date to May 16.
Even with that extension, the Canucks had been scheduled to play 19 times in 31 days, a slate that drew sharp criticism from Vancouver forward J.T. Miller. Noting Thursday that the team’s first practice since the outbreak was that day, with only a pregame skate Friday before getting thrust back into NHL competition, Miller said the situation was “dangerous to a lot of players.”
“It’s kind of crazy,” Miller said. “I know everyone has a job to do, but to expect our entire team to be ready to play in one practice and a pregame skate is a little bit hard to comprehend. …
“We try to talk about the No. 1 priority being the players health and their families’ safety, and it’s almost impossible to do what they’ve asked us to do here on our return.”
Miller is among the relatively few Canucks not known to have tested positive for the coronavirus. At one point last week, the NHL’s covid-19 protocol list included 21 Vancouver players plus four staff members. The team said the cause was an unspecified variant of the virus.
As of Thursday, the Canucks had three players still on the covid list, down from 16 on Tuesday. Miller, however, noted that it’s one thing to be cleared from the protocol and another to be fully fit and ready to play hockey. The 10th-year veteran, who has played for the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, told ESPN that some teammates were “struggling to breathe going up and down steps.”
“By [Thursday], their ‘full team’ will be healthy and cleared,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said of the Canucks on Wednesday via email to the Hockey News. “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,” Daly continued. “Everything, including resumption date and various other critical aspects of their remaining schedule, were done entirely collaboratively and with club input and consent.”
After the NHL announced Thursday it was delaying the Canucks’ return to play, Vancouver General Manager Jim Benning said in a statement his team’s medical staff was “confident the recovery process for those players will be aided by an additional couple of days.”
“Before every player resumes training, a full medical evaluation is carried out, consistent with return to play NHL COVID protocols,” Benning said. “As of today, certain players have passed evaluation, however many are not yet cleared and extra recovery time is required.”
With 35 points through 37 games, the Canucks are in sixth place in the seven-team, all-Canadian North Division. They are 10 points behind the Montreal Canadiens, who had four games postponed in March because of an outbreak and whose 40 games played are tied for second-fewest in the NHL. The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, and Montreal is sitting in fourth in the North.
Vancouver is scheduled to play the Toronto Maple Leafs at home Saturday and Monday. The Toronto Star cited an industry source in reporting that those games could be pushed back to Sunday and Tuesday, if and when the NHL announces its revised schedule Friday.