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Shortsighted postponements for non-COVID reasons cost the Canucks

Two postponed games in early January could come back to haunt the Canucks in the standings as they prepare to play on Friday with a depleted roster.
J.T. Miller won't be available to play for the Vancouver Canucks for at least five days after entering the NHL's COVID-19 protocol.

Heading into 2022, the Vancouver Canucks were on a roll. Under new head coach Bruce Boudreau, the Canucks were on a nine-game point streak with an 8-0-1 record and were coming home for a pair of home games before embarking on their toughest test yet: a five-game road trip against some of the best teams in the NHL.

Only, the Canucks never played those two home games.

The Canucks were scheduled to play the New York Islanders on January 5, then the Ottawa Senators on January 8, but both of those games were postponed. 

That in itself isn’t too surprising. Plenty of games this season have been postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks on one or both teams. But while the Canucks did have a few players unavailable due to COVID-19, most notably Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, they still had a full roster available, as did the Islanders and Senators.

Instead of postponing those games due to health concerns, they were postponed because Rogers Arena would be at 50% capacity. In other words, they were postponed for financial reasons — the team couldn’t make as much money off gate revenue.

“The National Hockey League announced today that due to current attendance restrictions in B.C., the Vancouver Canucks game on January 5 vs the New York Islanders will be rescheduled for a later date when such restrictions may be eased or lifted,” said a release at the time.

The January 8 game was postponed for the same reason, though its press release tried to spin it in a different light, adding that it was “postponed due to current attendance restrictions caused by the significant increases in COVID-19 cases in BC and the growing impact on hospitalization and the health care system.”

According to provincial health, however, those games could have been played as scheduled, with the 50% capacity restriction considered sufficient.

Now, as the Canucks prepare to play their first home game in over a month on Friday night, they have six players unavailable to play because they are in the NHL’s COVID protocol. That includes both of their goaltenders, Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak, and their top-three forwards in scoring, J.T. Miller, Conor Garland, and Bo Horvat.

And yet, the game is not expected to be postponed.

That leaves the Canucks with their third-string goaltender, Spencer Martin, starting his fourth-ever NHL game against arguably the best team in the NHL right now, the Florida Panthers. It seems like there’s a complete lack of concern for competitive balance. 

It’s hard to figure out the NHL’s reasoning behind some postponements. The New Jersey Devils had multiple games postponed in December when they had just five players in COVID protocol, though they were also dealing with bouts of a non-COVID illness. 

In early November, the San Jose Sharks had as many as seven players in the NHL’s COVID protocol and none of their games were postponed. 

Setting aside the seemingly random nature of many of the NHL’s postponements, it seems clear that postponing the Canucks’ two home games in early January was incredibly shortsighted.

NHL teams typically take in between $1.5 million to $3 million per home game from various revenue streams — ticket, food, merchandise, etc. — meaning a 50% capacity could potentially cut that in half, costing a team $750,000 to $1.5 million per game. 

It’s not a theory that the NHL postponed those games for financial reasons; their stated reason was because of capacity restrictions, with the hopes that said restrictions would be lifted by the time the games were rescheduled.

That doesn’t seem likely, as B.C. health officials recently extended capacity restrictions for the foreseeable future, as B.C. has seen a record number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 in the past week.

Postponing those two games unnecessarily puts a strain on the rest of the Canucks’ schedule. The game against the Islanders was rescheduled to February 9, right after a game against the Arizona Coyotes, giving them a set of back-to-back games. The same is true of the game against the Senators, which was rescheduled to April 19, the night after a game against the Dallas Stars.

Those games against the Islanders and Senators were eminently winnable — the two teams are currently 27th and 30th in the NHL — but having to play them on the second night of back-to-backs later in the season will be more difficult. Also, who knows how healthy they’ll be in February and April when they play those games? Injuries or illness could leave them with a depleted roster, perhaps missing key players like Demko, Miller, and Horvat like they are now.

They were largely healthy in early January, even with Boeser and Pettersson out. It was a great opportunity for the Canucks to extend their point streak to 11 games and head out on their difficult, five-game road trip with momentum on their side.

Instead, the Canucks went over a week without games, with the players and coach stating their concerns about losing their game legs. It showed in their first game of the road trip against the Panthers, as they clearly lacked pace early, leading to a 5-2 loss.

Would the Canucks have done better than 2-3-0 on their road trip if they had played their two home games heading into the trip? If so, did the NHL’s — and by extension the Canucks ownership — concern over money cost the Canucks points in the standings?