When the Carolina Hurricanes hopefully hit the ice Thursday night in their delayed home opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’ll be the first time the team has played in 10 days after six different players were placed on the COVID-19 protocol list.
The Canes, who beat Nashville 4-2 last time out back on Jan. 18, will be shorthanded Thursday, with five regular NHL players still away from the team. While Jordan Staal, who was the first player placed on the protocol list, practiced with the team in its first session back Tuesday, Teuvo Teravainen, Warren Foegele, Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast and Jaccob Slavin are still not with the team.
“There’s a lot of concerns,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “Number one, you’re missing a lot of guys. It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d been playing all along. That’d be a huge concern, having so many regulars out of your lineup.”
With those five key players out, the Hurricanes had all five skaters from the taxi squad in the lineup at practice Tuesday. Jake Bean joined the defensive corps, while Max McCormick, Morgan Geekie, Steven Lorentz and defenseman Joakim Ryan skated with the forward lines.
OK so full lineup here today appears to be:— Andrew Schnittker (@aschnitt53) January 26, 2021
While Brind’Amour did say the team was considering every possibility including calling other players up from the AHL, those 18 skaters are the ones that have been on the roster and taxi squad so far this season.
In addition to that group, forwards Sheldon Rempal and Drew Shore, defenseman Joey Keane and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic were at practice in PNC Arena Tuesday. While that group could presumably be the new taxi squad for the time being, there’s no official word from the Hurricanes.
Not only are the Canes missing five key contributors, but they are also missing a big chunk of the leadership group. At one point, all three of Carolina’s letter wearers were on the COVID list, with Slavin and Martinook still there. While Staal, the captain, said he anticipates playing Thursday assuming his body is where it needs to be, the Hurricanes will still enter the game without two of the three guys in the leadership group.
“That’s devastating, to be quite honest,” Brind’Amour said. “Everybody has to step up now a little more. We don’t have that vocal guy in the locker room like Martinook, what he brings, The energy that he provides, that’s gone. Somebody else has to fill that void. It’s not one guy. It’s probably a little bit from every guy.”
While the available personnel certainly does pose an issue for Brind’Amour’s team moving forward, its absence from the ice is as big of a concern as well. The Canes practiced for the first time in over a week Tuesday, as players got the opportunity to skate for the first time since things were put on pause.
“You couldn’t skate, which is not ideal,” said center Sebastian Aho. “I’m sure all the guys worked out by themselves, as much as everyone could. There’s no excuses. We just have to get the work done and get the legs going again and be ready for Thursday when the puck drops again.”
While Aho and Brind’Amour both were quick to credit how well the Canes’ strength staff helped the team through the last week, with both singling out head strength coach Bill Burniston, being away from the ice for so long is something that no amount of time on a stationary bike is going to fix.
Still, nobody on the Hurricanes is using that as an excuse. The reality of this season is that things are different for everybody, and every team is going to suffer through some things and it’s something that they quickly have to move on from.
“We’ve tried to do the best we can,” Brind’Amour said. “But not skating, the conditioning level goes right out the window very quickly when you are not on the ice every day. That’s a concern. But again, you’ve got to deal with it. The excuse jar is full. Nobody cares. We’ve got to figure it out. That’s the approach we have to have. We’re going to have to rely on a lot of different people to step up for sure, but I think we’re more than capable.”
While most guys, like Aho, were able to work out at home and still put in the work, Staal was stuck in Detroit for a long time and didn’t have the same ability to do so. While Staal did say his symptoms of COVID-19 were minor, he’s still in a very tough spot of having to return from the ice quickly after so much time in isolation away from the group.
“It’s just getting out there and doing it,” Staal said. “Now that I’m cleared, I’m just going to take it day by day and get the body back as quick as I can and do all the right things. Eat well and do those things that you have to do. There’s not much else you can do but that. We’ll see how it goes.”
The situation certainly isn’t ideal for the Hurricanes, as Brind’Amour said it did feel like that the NHL was just passing the team by and moving on without them. Catching up and doing so quickly is going to be vital for the team, as it restarts activity and hopes to get its full squad back in the coming weeks.
While missing players and going through this so early is a struggle the Canes have to overcome, if there is a silver lining it is that an opportunity is arising for other guys to step up.
Perhaps the coolest storyline for Carolina through all of this will be the story of Lorentz, a seventh-round pick back in 2015 that has worked his way through the system. When the puck drops in PNC Arena Thursday night it’ll likely mark the NHL debut for Lorentz, a bright spot in a pretty dark couple weeks for the Hurricanes.
“He’s a Cane,” Brind’Amour said. “He gets it as a person. He’s on the rise. He’s definitely worked his way up through the ranks. I’m really happy to have him get that opportunity. That’s what happens when these types of things arise, there’s opportunities for somebody. Hopefully he grabs it and does well with it.”