For a team that is fully healthy and prepared, the Canucks’ schedule of 19 games in 31 days to finish off the season would be daunting and risky.
The Canucks are neither healthy nor prepared.
At the peak of their COVID-19 outbreak, the Canucks had 20 players on the NHL’s COVID protocol list, plus three more players from the taxi squad, three members of the coaching staff, and one member of the team’s support staff. With the NHL expecting the team to return to play on Friday against the Edmonton Oilers, the Canucks still had seven players on the list.
Not all of them will be ready to return for Friday’s scheduled game against the Edmonton Oilers. According to a report from Postmedia’s Ben Kuzma, Nate Schmidt, Jake Virtanen, Loui Eriksson, and Nils Höglander won’t be available because of the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.
Schmidt, Virtanen, and Höglander were the last three Canucks with a confirmed positive case of COVID-19, so have yet to complete their required period of self-isolation, while Eriksson was considered a close contact who also still needs to complete his quarantine.
It’s not just that the Canucks will be missing players from their lineup but that none of the players — not even those who never tested positive for COVID-19 — are ready to play.
The Canucks will get just one full practice on Thursday ahead of Friday’s game and none of the players had access to the Canucks’ training facilities for over a week. The players haven’t played a game in three weeks. Those in isolation without symptoms would have still been hard pressed to keep up their conditioning, while some of those who did experience symptoms will have an even tougher time.
"We're not ready to play."
On Wednesday, J.T. Miller spoke out against the NHL’s planned schedule, candidly expressing his concern for the health and safety of himself and his teammates.
“To expect pretty much our entire team to be ready to play after a practice and a pregame skate is a little bit hard to comprehend,” said Miller. “For guys coming off of three weeks of rest, two weeks of having COVID, one practice isn't even close to near enough time to come back and perform at a high level.”
“It's not even about being able to perform, it's nothing to do with hockey at this point,” he said. “Brutally honestly, I think that we're gonna need more time than this to come back and play hockey. Even the guys that didn't get it, we're not ready to play.”
Miller was one of those few Canucks who evaded the virus and made it clear he doesn’t feel prepared to play on Friday, let alone 19 games in 31 days.
“I don’t really feel ready at all, to be completely honest,” he said. “Skating a couple times and my lungs are screaming and I’m definitely not in game shape at all right now from sitting around and not doing much. I couldn't imagine what these guys are gonna have to go through to get back and be ready to play at a high level.”
While Miller said he can’t speak on behalf of his teammates who did contract COVID-19, he made his own opinions crystal clear.
“This is hard for me and guys that haven't been affected by COVID,” he said. “I cannot imagine guys that have had it and guys that are struggling to breathe getting up and down steps to try to come back and perform. I'm worried about our team's safety.”
"It's dangerous to a lot of our players."
The NHL has made finishing 56 games a priority for the Canucks, when it feels like the priority should be elsewhere.
“Forcing us to play 19 in 30 or 31 days and think about the playoffs when guys are still recovering from this and are expected to be ready to play, it's frustrating,” said Miller. “This is a very extreme scenario and it's dangerous to a lot of our players, so I want to make sure that our priority is in the right spot.”
Miller’s strong statements carry a lot of weight as part of the team’s veteran leadership. There are few players more competitive in the NHL.
“I hope that people won't take this the wrong way because I'm a very competitive guy,” said Miller. “This doesn't have to do with hockey right now for our team...It's about the health and safety of our players and our players' families and their children. This isn't about making the playoffs for us at this point.”
The brutal schedule makes it tough to believe the NHL, NHLPA, and even Canucks’ ownership when they say they’re putting health first.
“We try to talk about the number one priority is the player's health and their family's safety and it's almost impossible to achieve that with what they've asked us to do here on our return,” said Miller.
For Miller, at least, his family has been safe but it’s a concern that is always in the back of his mind.
“Our family's been very fortunate to not be affected by this. We've been healthy, my little girls are healthy, my wife's healthy,” said Miller. “At the end of the day, the reason I play hockey is for my family. I love to play the game and this year it's making it sometimes hard to enjoy the beauty of the game of hockey.”
Despite all of his concerns, Miller said that he plans to play on Friday and do his best to get ready to play and play well despite the lack of time to prepare.
“We have a job to do, I guess.”