The Devils have been trapped in limbo for the past couple weeks as their season screeched to an abrupt halt at the end of January upon news of a COVID-19 outbreak among the team. That outbreak, almost certainly improperly managed by the league and/or the team, ended up infecting just about the entire Devils roster (and much of Buffalo’s, plus some refs, as it were). We have had a number of updates here as more players hit the COVID protocol list and more and more Devils games were postponed. The number of postponed Devils games is up to seven at this moment with the ostensible plan being to return to the ice on the 16th. At the time of this writing, the Devils still have 18 players on the COVID-19 protocol list, meaning that February 16th theoretical restart date, which is four (4) days from now, seems a little bit optimistic.
There are a number of questions and issues related to the Devils’ return to play, but let’s start strictly with logistics. As it stands, with three games from the past week still needing to be rescheduled, the Devils now have only two instances of multiple days between games on their schedule. By my count, they will get two (2) days of rest exactly twice on the current remaining schedule (between March 13th (vs. NYI) and 16th (vs. BUF) and between April 24th (@ PIT) and 27th (vs. NYI)). That means every other game on the schedule either has one or zero days rest in between. Given that more reschedulings are necessary, it seems likely that even those two brief landing spots could go away. Even without more postponements, it seems like the regular season end date will now have to move for the Devils, unless the league plans on subjecting them to a back-to-back-to-back or stuffing two back-to-backs in five days at some point.
Reports are that the league has a contingency to push out the back end of the season to some extent, but the Devils have already burned up most of any other wiggle room they had and will be subjected to a grueling schedule either way for the remaining 80%+ of their season without a significant shift of the end date. Add to this the fact that next Tuesday feels a bit optimistic for a return to play with a team that still has 18 players listed on the COVID protocol and we could be in for further postponements just based on this outbreak alone. It is starting to seem extraordinarily unlikely that the Devils can have their season wrapped up by early May, even if they have no further disruptions after whenever they finally retake the ice in the next week or so.
As for that whole “no further disruptions” thing, given how many outbreaks are simultaneously ongoing around the league, it seems pretty likely the Devils are in for more postponements, even if they aren’t due to an outbreak within the Devils’ own roster. Ultimately, with the magnitude of schedule disruption at this point, the league is going to have to make some choices on how to handle wrapping up the season. One of the main goals for the league is to be able to move on to a relatively normal schedule in 2021-22, so they can’t have too much more delay in this season without it starting to push back dates in the fall. As mentioned above, they probably have a couple weeks of cushion built in, but the Devils are likely already cutting into that at this point and a few more postponements could stretch the regular season into late May at this point.
This is the point in the piece where I note that recovery from COVID is not necessarily linear or predictable, and that it is possible one or more Devils deal with lingering effects over the next few weeks or months. Will the roster be able to handle playing 47 games in 81 days, which is the ostensible plan based on the schedule right now? We’re far beyond any of this being the truly responsible thing to do at this point, but is it even really possible to expect a team full of players recovering from a respiratory illness to play maybe the most demanding stretch of hockey in their lives in the immediate aftermath? Maybe the taxi squad can be used to maximize rest for as many players as is possible, but this is all starting to feel a bit unrealistic.
So what should the Devils, or more broadly the league, be considering at this point? Given the level of chaos enveloping the NHL schedule, it seems reasonable for the league to maybe start considering axing some games from the worst-impacted teams’ schedules. And if they do that, it might just make sense to reduce everyone’s schedule to match. With games being completely intra-divisional, keeping things balanced for everyone is as simple as dropping one matchup with each other divisional opponent, which would reduce the total number of games to 49 for the season (or, if they dropped two divisional games, 42). This is not necessarily the outcome anyone, most of all a league full of teams with sponsorship commitments to satisfy, wants, but it’s starting to feel like an avenue that should be pursued, unless the league seriously considers significantly shifting back its season end date.
In the meantime, we continue to wait, and hope, for the many Devils dealing with COVID-19 to recover soon and be well enough to safely resume play. Given what we saw happen with Minnesota prospect Marco Rossi, that is not necessarily a guarantee in the near future. I don’t know whether this is a popular opinion but I do think the league should be thinking hard about reducing the schedule to avoid the insane workload currently being set in front of a team full of players recovering from an illness with possible lingering respiratory and cardiovascular effects. Will that happen? I don’t know that I’d bet on it, but we are closing in on the point where something’s gotta give for the team and the league.