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NHL's new taxi squad could prove very useful for Avs prospects

AJ Haefele Avatar
December 22, 2020

When the NHL announced it had reached an agreement with the players on a plan for the upcoming season, one of the most intriguing details to emerge from the talks was the creation of a “taxi squad.”

After watching MLB successfully use this concept to help make up for the lack of minor league play, the NHL has decided to implement its own version.

From my piece on the NHL’s upcoming plan for the season on taxi squad details:

  • Minimum of four players with a maximum of six.

  • Waiver rules apply the same to taxi squad players as they would for players assigned to the minors

  • One goalie is required for all teams with less than three active goalies on the roster

  • The first day players can be loaned to the taxi squad is the last day of training camp

  • While squad members can practice with the NHL club, they are not allowed additional practices with the AHL club

  • If a squad member is deemed unfit to play (for whatever reason), a team can request they not count towards the six-player limit

  • If a player is injured while on the squad, he is considered to have been injured in the minors

How the Avs use this squad in practical terms could be just the thing they were looking for with some of their prospects.

Colorado currently sits with a surefire, no doubt about it roster of 12 F/6 D/2 G with right about $1.8M in salary cap space available. That space is just enough to fit two cheap contracts onto the roster, one at forward and one on defense.

Training camp was set to be a battle for players such as Bowen Byram, Martin Kaut and Conor Timmins to try to unseat veteran players for jobs.

With the taxi squad, Colorado doesn’t really need to add many more players to its roster. The new requirement of always having three goalies, either all three on the active roster or two on the active roster and one on the taxi squad, could mean some problems for the Avs.

They were planning on going into the season with the same goaltenders in the NHL with Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz but were going a younger, more inexperienced route in the AHL with Hunter Miska and Adam Werner.

While Werner played in two NHL games last year and Miska was the backup on the Avalanche bench behind Michael Hutchinson during their series loss to the Dallas Stars, the NHL club was not in the plans for either player as more than injury fill-ins.

The Avs clearly value Werner’s development because they wanted to keep him in, at worst, a platoon at the NHL level and Miska just simply had a rock solid year for the Eagles. The Avs wanted to run back a duo that worked.

Now with the new rule of always having to carry three goaltenders, the Avs pretty much have to sign another goaltender to keep around just in case he’s needed. What does that mean for Werner and Miska?

Do they split starts with the Eagles while a veteran mans that third spot? Does Werner get the bulk of the starts and Miska goes to practice with the Avs? Does Colorado decide Werner practicing with the NHL club would be better development than playing AHL games and he becomes the taxi squad goaltender while Miska becomes the man in Loveland?

There are a lot of angles to the goaltending aspect that Colorado has to figure out but the skater portion of this is where the Avs have a chance to get creative and gain real value from it.

Byram, especially, has been a big question mark as we approach the start of training camp. With him starring for Team Canada at the WJCs, he’s now very likely to miss the open of camp, which begins January 3 while the WJCs finish on January 5, and could face a seven-day quarantine upon returning to Denver if he flies commercial back to Colorado.

That would mean Byram misses all of training camp and only arrives just in time for the start of the regular season. Colorado’s roster is simply too talented and assuming all of the regulars are healthy, Byram getting a free pass onto the defense and into the spot of a Ryan Graves or Ian Cole is tough to imagine.

With the taxi squad, however, the Avs can keep Byram around without him costing against the salary cap (which would only be $894K anyway) or taking up a roster spot but he’s still practicing with the team every day. Since Byram is currently ineligible for the AHL and the WHL’s season in flux, there isn’t really anywhere for Byram to go.

The taxi squad is a perfect solution for Byram to use a week or two of practice as his own personal Avs training camp and then the team can start looking to find chances to get him into the lineup. Having had Byram in the bubble in Edmonton during the playoffs last year, it shouldn’t be much of a culture shock to get him into the flow of things.

Once in the lineup, though, Byram will have less time to establish himself than a normal year. Because his ELC still has the possibility of sliding, Byram will have just six games to prove himself instead of the usual nine. The seventh game for Byram would mean his ELC begins and the Avs keep him around the rest of the year.

Beyond Byram, the other player who immediately comes to mind here is Martin Kaut. While Kaut’s ELC will (finally) begin this year no matter what, Kaut is still likely the 13th-ish forward on Colorado’s depth chart. Assuming health, they have 12 clear-cut forwards ready to go.

Kaut is slated to be in competition with guys like Logan O’Connor, Shane Bowers and familiar AHL holdovers T.J. Tynan, Sheldon Dries, Jacob MacDonald (at forward and defense) while also dealing with newcomers Mike Vecchione, Miikka Salomaki and Kiefer Sherwood.

History tells us there’s always a surprise player or two that makes the opening night roster based on training camp. Last year it was Timmins, who played opening night for the Avs before ever getting a chance to suit up for the Eagles after missing an entire season due to concussions.

Where Timmins fits today remains a major question mark. His inability to stay healthy as a pro, from the concussion he suffered at the end of his junior career to the lower-body injury he suffered last year and the injury and removed him from the playoffs when he finally got into the lineup, has dominated his progression as a player, which has been significant.

Timmins is clearly NHL-ready from an on-ice and ability standpoint. His high IQ and ability to kickstart a transition game is a nice fit with Colorado and while his average skating won’t confuse anyone with Cale Makar, he’s good enough to handle himself in the NHL. Until he stays healthy, however, he’s a wild card.

Because health is his last obstacle to showing himself ready for the NHL, Timmins might be the opposite of Kaut and Byram – it makes more sense for Timmins to play in the AHL than to languish on Colorado’s taxi squad, where he has nothing to prove.

The rest of the ‘obvious’ candidates for the taxi squad are the list from above, with O’Connor leading the way. Colorado simply has more forwards ready to make a move into the NHL than defensemen as Byram and Timmins are the only true prospects knocking on the door, though newcomer Dennis Gilbert would make a lot of sense as a member of the taxi squad once injuries inevitably hit.

An aspect of Colorado’s prospect development process that has consistently come under fire is the very last step – transitioning players from the AHL to the NHL. It’s been a long-standing problem for the organization, going as far back as recently-retired Johnny Boychuk, whom the Avs did all the development on and traded him away just as he was ready to blossom in the NHL.

For guys ready to make that last push, the Kaut, Bowers, Byram, O’Connor types, this might be the best way for them to make that transition. Instead of relying on reports from the AHL, Jared Bednar and his staff will have firsthand looks at those players every single day in practice.

There won’t be the same kind of projection or guesswork that you normally see with an AHL-NHL transition. They will be practicing with NHL players at NHL speed and they’ll either fit in and show they’re ready for game action or they won’t.

For an organization that has long struggled with the final transition process, this is a unique opportunity for them to find a solution that doesn’t involve them breaking too far out of their comfort zone (which seriously needs to happen anyway) to get their young prospects to the finish line.

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