Earlier this month, the NHL announced that as part of the COVID safety protocol, teams would carry “taxi squad” throughout the 2021 season. The players on the taxi squad will be subject to waivers and be treated as AHLers for salary cap purposes, so teams won’t be able to erase a bad contract by designating someone as one of the alternates. The group will be comprised of anywhere between four and six players with at least one being a goalie.
With these requirements teams are going to have to make decisions based on who they want around to fill in when lineup regulars get injured. If we ever do see an AHL season (we suspect not), the guys on the taxi squad will not be allowed to be a part of the team. This means that even if the Eagles are playing, anyone designated as an NHL alternate would not be able to participate.
This makes things tough. Will teams want to keep prospects out of game action by designating them for the taxi squad, or will they look to AHL veterans as the extra skaters who won’t have their development stunted by a lack of playing time. Of course, this decision becomes moot if an AHL season doesn’t occur.
The Avalanche have a lot of options, so let’s take a look at who might be on the taxi squad when the season begins.
After giving him a new two-year contract, the Avalanche are clearly comfortable having Miska around as one of the top-four goalies in the organization. The 25-year-old has battled through some injuries in the past but outplayed Adam Werner with the Eagles last season. With Werner struggling when loaned out to play in Sweden in the fall, Miska looks to be the clear No. 3 and has the pedigree to be a reliable backup should either Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz miss time with injury.
After making his debut in the NHL two seasons ago, O’Connor found his way into the Avalanche lineup a lot more frequently last year. Scoring two goals in 16 NHL games, the former Denver Pioneer became a valuable injury replacement for the fourth line. With the ability to fill in at any forward position, as well as a familiarity with the team, O’Connor will be a valuable body to have around. He has the potential to break camp as the team’s 13th forward, but given the depth chart, he is far more likely to find his way onto the taxi squad.
Like O’Connor, Dries has a chance to be the 13th forward going into the season, though it’s more likely he ends up on the taxi squad. Playing 44 games with the Avalanche over the last two seasons, Dries can fit seamlessly into the lineup should the need arise. He won’t move the needle for the team, but he’s a player that Jared Bednar knows he can rely on to play a solid eight to 10 minutes a night.
A year removed from the NCAA, Bowers did nothing but impress during his first professional season. He put up a solid 27 points in 48 games as an AHL rookie and earned a trip to the playoff bubble with the Avs. On a recent podcast appearance, Bednar singled out Bowers as someone who “looked really good in the bubble.”
Given the team’s depth, there isn’t likely to be room for Bowers in the team’s opening night lineup, but he would be a solid injury replacement for the bottom six. He’s also at the point in his development where he could learn a lot from being around the NHL team at practice every day.
Working under the assumption that Connor Timmins starts the season as the six or seventh defender (something that maybe we shouldn’t assume but will for the sake of this exercise), the newly acquired Gilbert is likely to be on the taxi squad. A part of the Saad/Zadorov trade, Gilbert is a 24-year old with limited NHL experience that some believe could grow into an everyday bottom-pair defender. He’d be the eighth defender and wouldn’t see any playing time unless two others need the night off but Gilbert would be a very serviceable defender for the team. Gilbert will enter camp battling Josh Anderson and Jacob MacDonald for the role.
All things being equal, this is where the team’s top defensive prospect may ultimately end up this season. He will get to camp late and have some catching up to do thanks to his participation in the World Junior Championship for Team Canada. Plus, he can play six games this season without burning the first year of his entry-level contract. The most likely scenario is that he plays those six games spaced out over a month or so before being shifted to the taxi squad as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency, fail-safe option. Of course, this all changes if the AHL has a season and allows 19-year-olds in 2021. If that happens, Byram will likely end up with the Eagles, playing big minutes before making the jump to the NHL as a regular next fall.
Many fans think Byram is a lock to be a regular in the Avalanche lineup this season, but if that’s the case, he likely wouldn’t have been loaned to Team Canada for World Juniors.