This season, teams in the National Hockey League will be able to have more than 23 players travel, practice, and join NHL team activities. Operating under alternate cap hit rules, the “Taxi Squad” was made to assure that teams have enough players available to continue playing if a COVID outbreak undermines their roster, requiring the recall of multiple players to fill the need. Since the AHL season will not be underway until February, it would be difficult for any team to recall game-ready players unless they are already practicing with the team. Regardless, recalls from the AHL would be difficult due to the travel involved. CapFriendly posted a list of rules regarding the Taxi Squad:
Taxi Squad details for the 2020-21 #NHL season:https://t.co/XpdrFRgPbt pic.twitter.com/5qNa7lA2ZL— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) December 20, 2020
The Devils are going to have to think about who they want their Taxi Squad to be. For some time, it makes sense to pull from their AHL roster. But considering that the AHL is shooting for a February 5 start, it behooves the Devils to allow their AHL roster to play AHL games. This means that players like Nolan Foote, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotyuk, Marian Studenic, and Mikhail Maltsev would be better served playing what few games they will be able to play with Binghamton rather than waiting for a couple of NHL games to pop in at some random time in the season due to some players being out due to coronavirus or injuries. So, who should be on the New Jersey Devils’ Taxi Squad?
Goaltender: Scott Wedgewood
This ones an easy one. Scott Wedgewood was recently an extra goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoff bubble. He turned 28 years old in August - and what you see with Wedgwood is what you get. He is (probably) not going to suddenly turn into an amazing goalie because he got some more AHL seasoning. For that reason, it is better that Wedgewood gets to be on the Taxi Squad rather than 24-year old Gilles Senn, who played in his first AHL season last year.
For Devils fans, Wedgewood is a familiar face. He was excellent for a four-game stretch all the way back in the 2015-16 season, where he went 2-1-1 with a .957 save percentage. He might have been a backup for some time in 2016-17, but a torn labrum required a surgery that kept him out for about half a year. Since then, his only NHL games came in 2017-18 after being traded to the Arizona Coyotes. In 20 games, Wedgewood went 5-9-4 with an .893 save percentage. If he gets into any NHL games, the Devils should hope he does at least somewhat better than that - but he had an .893 save percentage in the 2019-20 AHL season as well.
Defense: Andy Greene
Under normal circumstances, the Devils would be able to justify not giving Andy Greene a spot on their team, since they already have Dmitry Kulikov, an up-and-comer in Ty Smith, and a seventh defenseman in Connor Carrick. On the NHL roster, having Andy Greene would probably mean he sits to start the season. However, with the Taxi Squad, I would prefer signing veterans to fill the spots to keeping younger players out of games. The NHL season will not be in progress before the AHL starts - so the Devils should just jump on opportunities to make sure they have players who are able to contribute at an NHL level but are in no need of playing AHL games. Andy Greene certainly fits the bill - and the Islanders still have not signed him. At some point, expecting that they will reunite is meaningless - Lou Lamoriello still has not made a contract with him official, and the Devils should punish their hesitance. Besides, the team could always use some readily available leadership and direction from one of the only people the franchise can be proud about for the past decade.
Defense: Slater Koekkoek
In a phone interview with The Athletic ($), Slater Koekkoek recently acknowledged that he might get onto an NHL roster due to the new Taxi Squads that teams must make use of. The Devils could certainly use Slater Koekkoek as a depth defender. Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov haven’t exactly been the most durable players, which is why there are two left-handed defensemen here. With Ty Smith playing the right side and Connor Carrick being an extra defender - the Devils will probably have more of a need for players comfortable on the left side. Koekkoek can handle both the left and right side - and some versatility is good in a Taxi Squad player. In his carer, Koekkoek has 29 points in 149 games, playing only an average of 14:09 per game. With Chicago, he scored 15 points in 64 games playing an average of 16:39 across two seasons. Additionally, Koekkoek is historically effective in his depth role, being a positive force in shot creation and suppression.
Forward: Michael Frolik
Michael Frolik had a bad year in 2019-20. His scoring dropped to 14 points in 57 games for both the Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres. After years of being a good possession driver, with good expected goals impacts, Frolik had a down season. However, this season was somewhat out of the blue. Over the prior three seasons with Calgary, Frolik was at times very effective - and was able to contribute up and down the lineup. Here’s his Evolving-Hockey RAPM chart for 2016-19:
He was very bad, however, in the 2019-20 season. His teams performed much worse offensively with him on the ice, though he was still pretty much average defensively. Frolik will be 33 in February - and he might never regain his old 30-45 point scoring form. But even if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t mind seeing him fill in on the bottom six for the Devils from time to time. Besides - what if he gets into the lineup and has a bounce back season?
Forward: Brian Boyle
Yet another familiar face on this list, the Devils could bring Brian Boyle back to New Jersey with the Taxi Squad. Last season with the Florida Panthers, Boyle had 15 points in 39 games on the fourth line. However, Boyle did not appear to be playing his normally steadfast game - and that might be the reason behind him still sitting without a contract this late into the offseason. From HockeyViz, here’s his isolated impact chart for the 2019-20 season:
Brian Boyle turned 36 years old on December 18, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that his game is starting to falter. However, he’s a good Taxi Squad candidate. Boyle is a great locker room presence and easy to root for. He’s played with much of the team in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, and I do not think he would be given much of a chance to do much elsewhere.
Forward: Brett Seney
Brett Seney is kind of an odd one in this list. He’s the only skater who is currently signed to a contract with the New Jersey Devils. In that respect, he is the most likely skater mentioned to be on the Devils’ Taxi Squad. I think that this would be the proper move for Seney due to his persistent AHL/NHL bubble status. He has scored 71 points in 99 career AHL games with the Binghamton Devils since the end of the 2017-18 season. but has barely seen the NHL since he scored 13 points in 51 games for the Devils in 2018-19. He does not have much more to prove at the AHL level - and the Devils might actually benefit from him voiding his spot on that roster so younger players like Nolan Foote, Mikhail Maltsev, and Nate Schnarr can get more minutes. Brett Seney will be 25 in February 2021 - he’s reached an age where players tend not to get much better than they already are. For that reason, I do not see him as an AHL player moving forward, even if I do not think he’s outright NHL-caliber.
He might be below-average across the board in terms of skill and impact, but he wasn’t exactly boring to watch early in his time with the Devils. If he gets placed on the Taxi Squad, we could have a definitive answer on whether he can be part of the team moving forward.
Concluding Thoughts and Clarifications
You might be wondering reading this - where is Michael McLeod? Nathan Bastian? I did think about them prior to selecting the players I chose - but I think it is more likely they are on the 23-man roster than on the Taxi Squad. The Devils have a ton of question marks on their wings for he upcoming season, and I think we will be seeing names like Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Jesper Boqvist, Nick Merkley, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian given a chance outright rather than sit them on the Taxi Squad. I wouldn’t even be surprised if one of them got sent to the AHL once their season starts - but most of them will be in the lineup or healthy scratches on January 13. If nobody gets hurt in Training Camp, only one of those players will be unable to be in the 23-man roster and will either be sent down or assigned to the Taxi Squad.
Obviously, I do not expect the Devils sign each and every one of the free agents I listed. However, it would be a good idea to sign some of them. If you are an NFL fan, you’ve probably seen how teams can be derailed by COVID spread. If the Devils just stack their Taxi Squad with AHL talent, they will not be prepared for what’s going to happen before the vaccine has been given to the populations most in need and begins to be distributed to other civilians. If the team has an outbreak, it would be pretty unpleasant to see multiple Binghamton Devils aside from the six hopefuls mentioned just above entering the lineup. The fallback beyond them should mostly be UFAs along with Wedgewood and Seney. Besides, Tom Fitzgerald should make sure to leave Binghamton with enough players to get through their season as well. Surrounding the NHL team with some extra veteran role models (who can hold their own in a game) and players in their mid-20s like Koekkoek and Seney seems like a better idea to me.
What do you think about the Taxi Squad for the upcoming NHL season? Who do you think should be on it? Do you agree with the suggestions I made here? Do you think some other free agent would be a better option than any I listed? Or should the Taxi Squad be more of an internally-sourced group? How many games do you expect Taxi Squad players will be used in? How much importance do you see in it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Credit to CapFriendly for the Taxi Squad rules, Evolving-Hockey for RAPM charts, and HockeyViz for isolated impact maps.