It’s late December, and we’re finally starting to gear up for the return of NHL Hockey and the Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s been a unique year, and this upcoming season will also be a bit different. The NHL is playing a 56-game season and the schedule will end up pushing all of the normal dates by about a month, finally culminating in Free Agency opening up on July 28th, which hopefully allows them to return to a regular schedule for the 2021-22 season.
Because of the circumstances still surrounding the world and hockey, the NHL is expanding the rules for emergency recalls as well as allowing teams to have a six player taxi squad, with one of those players having to be a goaltender. Players on the taxi squad will travel and practice with the big team, but will be paid their AHL salaries. While some particulars about this special unit of players are still to be settled, I’m operating under the assumption that players will be treated as if they’re in the minors and will require waivers to move back and forth between the NHL roster and the extra squad, except in the case of emergency recalls. It also appears that players will only be allowed to be part of this group only for a certain amount of time without appearing in an NHL game.
The idea of the taxi squad and the changes to emergency recalls is clear. Without going into a bubble as the NHL did for the 2019-20 playoffs, the possibility of players testing positive for COVID-19 and being unable to play is much greater (see what has happened in the NFL as an example). Having players already traveling with the team eliminates the need for bringing a player in from the AHL and having them fly commercial to make it to a game; which would obviously carry some risk of exposure for that player.
So let’s explore how the Lightning can best make use of these extra players.
Who are the most likely candidates for the taxi squad?
Let’s get the goaltenders out of the way. The Lightning’s depth goaltenders are Spencer Martin and Christopher Gibson. Spencer played 33 games for the Syracuse Crunch last season with an .897 SV%. He has only played in three NHL games in his career, those coming in 2016-17 with the Colorado Avalanche when he went 0-2-1 with an .865 SV%.
Christopher Gibson has a better resume and in my opinion would be the chief option to be the third goaltender on the taxi squad. The Lightning signed Gibson as a free agent after he spent the past five seasons in the New York Islanders organization. He has played in 14 NHL games with a 3-4-3 record and .904 SV%.
With that done, we can look at the skaters. The best bets for this group will be players that are waiver exempt or are veteran depth players that are unlikely to be claimed on waivers. They also need to be good enough players that they can step into the NHL and play a bottom of the line up role in case of injuries or quarantines.
Forwards: Boris Katchouk*, Taylor Raddysh*, Alex Barre-Boulet*, Ross Colton*, Gemel Smith, Mathieu Joseph, Alex Volkov
Defense: Andreas Borgman, Luke Witkowski, Ben Thomas
* - Waiver Exempt Players
I list Joseph and Volkov here only because I’m unsure of if they will be on the NHL roster or could be waived and possibly pass through waivers. Joseph took a step back last season and ended up back in the AHL. Volkov got his first shot in the NHL, but failed to impress because of his inconsistency. Their status on the NHL roster will also be dependent on what moves the Lightning make between now and opening night.
Barre-Boulet and Colton are both prospects that have been in the organization for a few years now and are on the verge of making the NHL. Barre-Boulet brings more offensive punch, but with his small size and average skating, he has still has a lot to prove to make it into the NHL. Colton is a bigger body that brings versatility as a center and winger as well as being a defensively responsible forward.
Katchouk and Raddysh are somewhat stalled prospects, but I believe are options because they could step into limited fourth line roles and potentially bring some value in the NHL, especially Katchouk, who is the more defensively minded of the two. For all four of these players, they are appealing options because of being waiver exempt which would ease the ability to shuttle them back and forth between the active and taxi squad rosters.
Gemel Smith is a veteran that is unlikely to be claimed on waivers, but has enough NHL experience to be a plug and play forward on the fourth line. He’s also not a developing prospect at this point, so would not be hurt as much by lack of playing time while hanging out on the taxi squad roster.
On the defensive end, Borgman was signed as a free agent this offseason. He spent his first two seasons in North America playing in the Toronto system and spent last season with the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL. He played 48 games for the Maple Leafs in the NHL in 2017-18, but has not been called up at any point during the past two seasons. He is a nice depth option that, when he signed, I expected to be the top defenseman with the Syracuse Crunch and one of the first recall options.
Luke Witkowski offers some flexibility in being able to play on the fourth line as a forward, but that experiment at the beginning of last season was pretty much a disaster. Ben Thomas is a player that is very polarizing. Many of the close Syracuse Crunch followers do not like his play because of defensive liabilities. He had a burst of offensive output in the playoffs for the Crunch a few years ago, but has yet to translate that into a NHL call up. Neither player is exactly the kind of player I’d want to see playing in the NHL, but in a protected role as a 7th defenseman, they could be serviceable in an emergency situation.
Salary Cap Manipulation
One interesting thought with the taxi squads is the possibility of shuffling players back and forth between the active roster and the taxi squad as needed. I’m wondering if the NHL might address this, but at this point, I haven’t seen anything to state otherwise that there is a limit on how often you can send the player back and forth, especially if they are waiver exempt.
Let’s say that the Lightning end up trading two forwards and getting Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak re-signed by the start of the season. That would put the Lightning at 11 forwards, six defensemen, and two goaltenders. Volkov and Joseph, because they need waivers, are likely to make the NHL roster. If one of them could make it through waivers though, then that would put the Lightning at 12 forwards instead of 13.
What the Lightning could then do is put Cal Foote on the taxi squad and only call him up for game days, while leaving him on the taxi squad for off days. While it realistically would not save a whole lot on the salary cap, it could be enough to give the Lightning a little bit of breathing room during the season if there are multiple injuries. We already know the Lightning are going to be tight against the cap even after making moves to get compliant. That kind of manipulation could be the difference between being able to add a player or not at the trade deadline.
If the Lightning ended up getting one of Joseph or Volkov through waivers and onto the taxi squad, while Barre-Boulet or Colton made the team and were playing regularly, they could do likewise with either of those players since they will be waiver exempt all season.
I feel like a lot has been made of this kind of manipulation of the taxi squad with constant transfers on Twitter, but the advantage probably isn’t as big as many think it might be. With 117 league days, and 56 games, realistically the most that could be saved is roughly half of the players salary cap hit. There’s only so many players that you can do this with, and most of them are cheaper players. Even if the team could manage to do it with two players, that’s about $1 million in cap savings.
One last point to make on this. If the Lightning end up trading for Henrik Zetterberg’s contract from the Detroit Red Wings as has been rumored so that the Lightning can use him for Long Term Injured Reserve, then this becomes a moot point. If a team is using LTIR cap space, then they are not accruing cap space that can be used later in the year. You can only accrue cap space by being under the salary cap throughout the season. LTIR allows a team to exceed the salary cap.