Yesterday, the NHL made the decision to postpone the three games the New Jersey Devils were set to play this week due to the addition of four more forwards to the COVID-19 Protocol. This evening, five more members of the New Jersey Devils were added to the list. As reported through this Tweet by Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, the new additions are Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Ty Smith, Damon Severson, and Matt Tennyson. This brings the Devils’ total up to 14 members on the COVID-19 list, of which 11 actively played for the Devils within the past seven days and 9 played in Sunday’s 5-3 win in Buffalo.
That last point is relevant as two members of the Buffalo Sabres were also added to the COVID-19 Protocol List today as per Johnston: Taylor Hall and Risto Ristolainen. The Sabres also had their next four games postponed. The league announced that due to cases involved and ongoing tests, the Sabres are idle until February 8 at a minimum. The Sabres organization is very unhappy about the situation.
According to this free article at The Athletic, the Sabres requested information about Kyle Palmieri, who played on Saturday, January 30, but was held out of Sunday’s game on January 31 due to the COVID-19 Protocol. They did not get it either from the Devils or the league prior to the puck dropping. I do not know what exactly what was request or whether it was possible to share it or provide it then. Either way, it is clear in retrospect that the Sabres took a significant risk to play the Devils, now have two players who are on the list, potentially could have more than those two added in the coming days, and four games are postponed because of it all. As per John Vogl’s section of The Athletic, the Sabres question whether this current could have been avoided when Travis Zajac was added the protocol list on Friday before the weekend’s games. I do not blame them for feeling this way. I sympathize with the Sabres. Unfortunately, what’s done is done.
There was a small bit of good news from Johnston’s reporting about the Devils this evening. Mackenzie Blackwood has been removed from the COVID-19 Protocol List. He was added prior to the Devils’ first game against the Islanders on January 21. As he was on the list for 13 days, including today, it is safe to assume he is now fine. More importantly, he has not been with the team that is now entirely suspect of carrying the virus. Blackwood has been contained. I presume he can rejoin the team when the team’s facilities re-open and the team is allowed to have activities together (e.g. practices, off-ice workouts, games). Further, as the Devils have been away from the Rock, the Prudential Center and RWJBarnabas Hockey House should be OK for Binghamton to begin their season this week. The risk is with the New Jersey Devils roster and staff, who need to be contained given this current outbreak among them.
This is the worst-case scenario with running the NHL season as it is. Someone gets potentially infected and that led to a spread through close-contact interaction and games. It is happening with the Devils and now the Sabres are subject to it. Given that the Flyers played in Newark - remember Zajac was added the day after the second Flyers game last Thursday - I would imagine there are concerns within the Philadelphia organization about positive cases given their recent games in New Jersey. As far as Buffalo’s complaint about lacking information, again, it is not really clear who was responsible or whether the requested information could be provided. If it turns out that New Jersey did withhold information, then they deserve the punishment they would likely get. If it is from the league, the Devils followed league protocols, and/or the information was not free to share, then I doubt anything else will happen to the Devils beyond following league directions to get their season back on track.
Short of a league-wide outbreak, the 2021 season will continue. I hope the postponed games limited to just the three for New Jersey and four for Buffalo and they are made up. Cancelling games outright would require a graver situation.
It is easy to say “They should have played in a bubble” now, but I do not think that was ever a viable option for the season. The NHLPA did not want to do that again as players - understandably, in my view - hated being sequestered from the world for two months to play. It is not known whether such an effort would be feasible for a 56-game season in terms of venue availability and resources. And the NHWL has shown that the bubble approach is not a fail-safe; one team had to leave due to COVID-19 concerns within the past five days. The season already begun; stopping it is not a viable option at this point either. There is far too much already invested in getting this season going; both the teams and the players currently want to finish what they just started. There is no easy answer to all of this and the information on the ground requires a fluid situation. Perhaps this will lead to more restrictive rules and protocols, but that will be up to the league and the union to come up with them and then agree to them. It may be required given the news out of the Devils and, now, the Sabres today. Even then, this is a virus. One can follow all the rules as much as possible and still get it because it is a virus. That, among other factors, why this has been so difficult for nearly everyone to deal with.
We wish for Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Janne Kuokkanen, Michael McLeod, Pavel Zacha, Andreas Johnsson, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Ty Smith, Damon Severson, Matt Tennyson, Taylor Hall, and Rasmus Ristolainen to be as healthy as they can be at the moment. If they are truly positive for the virus, we hope it is as mild as they it can be, they recover fully from it, and the situation does not expand any more than it already has.