As the NHL is set to return to play after the extended holiday pause, they are doing so with a familiar COVID-19 measure: the taxi squad. While it is both disappointing and concerning that games have been postponed due to several outbreaks throughout the league, having a taxi squad may be beneficial for the Kings in the long run as they continue developing their prospect pool.
How Does the Taxi Squad Work?
Under the current plan, NHL teams will be allowed to carry six additional players that can fill in for any players who test positive on an emergency basis. Ideally, this will prevent any further postponement of NHL games which, prior to the NHL holiday pause, had become an increasing concern with the NHL already having to postpone 67 games. In most cases, the taxi squad is comprised of American Hockey League (AHL) players, both prospects and veterans.
These players essentially become fully integrated, as they are able to travel and practice with the team. They are just not on the active roster unless and until they are called up on an as-needed basis. Per the current rules, players are allowed to remain on the taxi squad for a maximum of 20 days while still being considered and payed as minor leaguers. The taxi squad will stay in effect at least until the All-Star break in early February.
What the Taxi Squad Means for Prospects
Last season, there was an ongoing debate over whether or not the taxi squad would be beneficial for prospects. While some argued that it would be good for prospects to travel, play, and integrate themselves with the teams, others argued that the lack of actual playing time would be harmful to development. As a result of this, some teams elected to put bubble, or players who are too good for the AHL but not quite good enough to be regulars in the NHL, in their taxi squad while others wanted to allow some of their prospects to get a taste of what playing in the NHL is like.
The Kings used a mix of the two strategies: their opening night taxi squad consisted of young forwards Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Lias Andersson, bubble defenseman Austin Strand, and netminder Alex Villalta. Throughout the season, the taxi squad was constantly being rotated so players could still see playing time in the AHL.
In some situations, such as with Arthur Kaliyev and Quinton Byfield, the taxi squad was used as a way to evaluate players during practice prior to activating them to make their NHL debuts.
The Blessing in Disguise
The Kings, as a team with a very ample prospect pool, are in a unique situation. As the team looks to return to playoff competition, some of their prospects are showing that they may be ready to crack the lineup. These players include former fifth overall draft pick Alex Turcotte, who is set to make his NHL debut tonight, and the likes of Samuel Fagemo and Vladimir Tkachev.
With the reimplementation of the taxi squad, the Kings can employ a similar strategy to last season’s and use the taxi squad as an evaluation tool to look at players they are considering calling up. The Kings’ coaching staff can work directly with the players and see exactly where they are at without having to work around the salary cap situation that calling them up would entail. If the coaches believe players are ready, they can commit to calling them up and, if not, they can send them back to the AHL’s Ontario Reign with notes for improvement. In addition, emerging players will get a taste of what playing in the NHL is like. They will become more familiar with the system the Kings run and will be able to acclimate themselves with their future teammates and coaching staff.
So long as the Kings are careful enough to ensure that prospects are still playing in games, the team should take advantage of this situation to evaluate the young talent. If used properly, the reimplementation of the taxi squad can potentially be beneficial for the Kings as some of their prospects prepare to start playing for the NHL club.
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As a native Angeleno, Katie Nash is a life-long Kings fan and experienced amateur hockey journalist. She is excited to provide her perspective through covering the Kings for The Hockey Writers.
Follow her on instagram @la.kings.hockey.