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Photo Credit: © Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

How the return of taxi squads affects the Canucks and why Abbotsford makes all the difference

With COVID-19 continuing to cause major issues for the NHL, on Sunday the league announced they’d be bringing back a few of the safety protocols from the pandemic shortened 2021 season, most notably, the return of taxi squads. And while last year’s taxi squad experiment proved to be a real struggle for the Canucks, there’s reason to believe they’ll get it right the second time around.

And they’ll certainly need to fast. Just this afternoon, with their return game in Anaheim against the Ducks just hours away, the team announced that Brock Boeser and Phil Di Giuseppe had been placed on COVID-19 protocol, along with a team staff member.

For a quick refresh on the rules, teams are permitted to carry up to 6 additional players on a practice squad that travels with the team, but still have to be officially called up to replace any injured or ill players. Players being sent from their NHL team to the taxi squad are placed on waivers, as they would be for assignment to the AHL, and can be reassigned to the farm club if desired.

However, compared to last year, the Canucks are in a much better position to utilize their taxi squad thanks to their AHL franchise’s move to Abbotsford.

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With the Canucks’ AHL players facing the longest travel distance between an NHL club and its farm team, the time required to send players back and forth between Utica and Vancouver made it nearly impossible for taxi squad members to play a proper number of games. The most notorious of those situations was Mikey DiPietro’s, who spent nearly the entire season as the Canucks taxi goalie before finally being sent to Utica in late April; by the time the season ended, DiPietro had played just four games in a 14-month span.

But that problem is hopefully a thing of the past with the Canucks AHL talent a car ride away. Without a border crossing and a two week quarantine in the way, the front office will be able to assign taxi squad members to play for Abbotsford on off days before reassigning them prior to an upcoming NHL road trip.

Which players end up joining the Canucks practice squad will be Jim Rutherford’s decision to make, but head coach Bruce Boudreau was able to provide some insight into the team’s thinking after practice Monday. “We’re on the verge of having 15 healthy forwards & seven healthy defense,” Boudreau said.

“I’m sure that a couple of players will be added, but I don’t think it’ll be a full six or seven players added to our taxi squad.”

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Based on Boudreau’s expectations, it seems like the Canucks will gravitate towards a no-frills approach for their taxi squad by taking just a single extra forward, defencemen and goalie for the time being. The team has already taken a few steps in that direction, assigning newly re-signed defensemen Ashton Sautner and goalie Spencer Martin to the group this afternoon.

Based on the team’s recent trend with call ups, players like Nic Petan and Noah Juulsen stand out as a couple more potential early candidates. But the choices for management will get a bit more interesting as their AHL team’s own injury issues start to clear up, specifically on defense.

Both Jack Rathbone and Travis Hamonic are expected to return from their respective injuries soon, and would be immediate taxi squad potential when healthy. At that point, Rutherford will have to decide whether it’s worth carrying both, or if one would be better off staying on Abbotsford’s practice schedule instead.

But unlike last season, the Canucks won’t need to rush this decision and plan weeks in advance on the off chance a taxi squad player’s services are needed. Vancouver will be able to bring a limited group in now to play their short three-game road trip in Southern California and Seattle, and decide where the priorities for their six practice spots should lie from there.

With the localized development system in place for their taxi squad to pull from, the Canucks could quickly turn a disadvantage in 2021 into an outright bonus in 2022.

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