As many silly ideas do, it began with a tweet. NHL players were entering COVID-19 protocol en masse this past week. It was a drag.
While laid up with a nasty case of the virus myself, I wondered if we couldn’t have a little fun with this ongoing bummer of a news cycle.
You could make a heck of a fantasy team with the dozens of players sidelined by the virus, nearly all of whom reportedly had mild or no symptoms. So, we did.
The first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Sebastian Aho would be a nightmare to defend. Aho, one of the most intelligent players in the game, would be freed up to go full sniper mode with Marchand driving play and Bergeron covering the loose areas.
The second line — Andrei Svechnikov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Mathew Barzal — wouldn’t have much defensive responsibility. Barzal would dominate the puck. Svechnikov, after bull-rushing his way into the slot, would clean up any messes.
How about an all-Calgary third line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Andrew Mangiapane? The latter, having a career year (17-3—20 in 28 games) because of fortunate shooting (23.9 percent), would see lots of pucks go in as they feasted on lower-tier matchups.
In the four days after that tweet was posted, 69 more players entered protocol. Only one of them — Boston’s Taylor Hall — caused us to rethink our lineup. Substitute him for the original pick (Bruins teammate Craig Smith) and you’ve got a fourth trio, including Nashville’s resurgent Mikael Granlund (5-22—27 in 28 games) and New Jersey captain Nico Hischier, that would toy with opponents.
The key to Team Protocol’s defense is Cale Makar, whose addition to the COVID list sparked the original idea. Makar pairs with Colorado teammate Devon Toews, and takes on the toughest assignments while the rest of the defense (Noah Hanifin-Aaron Ekblad, Oliver Kylington-Ryan Graves) offers support. We didn’t need to call on Drew Doughty, who will no doubt use the snub as motivation.
In net, we could have gone with Darcy Kuemper, but we’ve seen enough of Jacob Markstrom this season to know he’s the best option. Jeremy Swayman was the backup, with loads of potential.
In real life, hopefully everyone gets well soon. On paper, that’s a lot of talent. Analytics-focused writer Dom Luszczyszyn from The Athletic ran the roster through his “game score” formula — every player’s nightly, real-life performance is graded using a blend of individual and on-ice results — and projected that our squad would be good for about 132 points if slapped together for a full 82-game NHL season.
One problem: It wouldn’t fit under the salary cap. Not even close. Adding up the top 11 cap hits — Makar ($9 million), Aho ($8 million), and Kuznetsov ($7.8 million) the most expensive of those — we were already at $80.5 million.
Time for another on-the-couch challenge.
Some players had to be on the team: Marchand, Bergeron, Barzal, Aho, Svechnikov, Makar, Ekblad were too good to leave off. Granlund’s production for cost ($5 million) made him a lock. Ultimately, we had to trim some salary.
We dropped Gaudreau ($6.75 million) and Kuznetsov for a pair of entry-level contracts (Philadelphia’s Morgan Frost, Carolina’s Seth Jarvis), Hischier ($7 million) and Hall ($6 million) for Carter Verhaeghe and Ryan Lomberg (combined: $1.725 million), and Hanifin ($4.95 million) for Luke Schenn ($850,000). Kuemper ($3.5 million) was much cheaper, and just as good, as Markstrom ($6 million). We’re not nearly as strong, but we’re under the cap.
Here’s how the lines, defense pairs, and goalie tandem look:
There was one more pressing question: In a video game simulation, how would this team do? So we fired up EA Sports’ NHL 22 for Playstation 4.
We created a new franchise with those players. Forced to pick a home city, we went with Vaxjo, Sweden (abbreviation: VAX). Our nickname was the Warriors, our colors dark green, neon green, and yellow (they looked good together). We used the Wheeling Nailers’ iron mask logo for our crest.
Though CapFriendly had our roster fitting under the upper limit, EA’s accounting had us a few thousand bucks over. So we swapped out Graves ($3.17 million) for bargain pickup Tony DeAngelo, providing Carolina with nearly a point per game (5-16—21 in 22 games) on a mere $1 million salary.
To fill out the AHL squad and protect against injury, we signed a slew of players rated 75 and below — Martin Marincin, Rob O’Gara, Zane McIntyre, and the like — to minimum deals.
EA rated the Vaxjo Warriors a 90 overall, tied with Carolina for the most powerful team in the game. Rather than become club No. 33, we replaced Arizona in the Central Division. Sorry, Coyotes.
Boosted by a Lindholm hat trick and two goals from Marchand, we pounded Columbus, 6-3, in our opener. The rest of the 81 games and playoffs, we left to simulation.
Vaxjo went 48-26-8 and finished fourth in the Central. The Warriors had a balanced attack, paced by a 30-goal, 79-point season from Bergeron and 40 goals and 76 points from Marchand. The Warriors ranked third in goals per game (2.62) — a lockdown defense, if you will. Though Kuemper carried the load in net (68 games), Swayman shined as the backup (12-3-2, .916).
The Warriors swept their first-round series against the Sharks, dumped the Kraken in five games, and beat the Predators in seven games to make the Stanley Cup Final, where the Lightning took them down in five. Typical Tampa Bay.
The next two years (West finals, followed by a first-round exit) didn’t go as well. The club fired its general manager after that.
The real games are set to begin again Tuesday. Good news ahead, we hope.
Olympic chance may pass some by
Connor McDavid will have a few more chances to play for his country. Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon will try again in four years.
Others won’t be as fortunate.
The NHL and NHLPA choosing not to participate in the Beijing Olympics because of COVID-19 concerns may dash the golden dreams of players who are still playing at an elite level but are getting up there in their careers.
Brad Marchand, for example, has never played in the Olympics. He has played best-on-best hockey before, most recently starring at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey as his career arc took him from lower-lineup agitator to high-level offensive machine. Having won the Stanley Cup (2011), the Olympics remain his career white whale.
“I never, ever thought that would be possible,” Marchand told me in 2018 (coincidentally, during a bus ride in Beijing). “I never looked at or thought about the potential to go to the Olympics. It’s unfortunate, because last year” — the NHL did not participate in the PyeongChang 2018 Games — “would have been a real good opportunity. That’s been frustrating. I can imagine what it would be like. It would be insane. I always saw those things and thought they were a little bit out of reach.”
Marchand added that he couldn’t believe he was invited to Team Canada’s camp in 2014, where he golfed with one of his idols, Martin St. Louis, and skated with linemates Jonathan Toews and Steve Downie. Marchand didn’t make the cut for Sochi.
Not doubting Marchand’s will or skill, but he turns 34 in May. Canada is by far the deepest hockey country. What are his chances of making a loaded squad at Milano Cortina in 2026?
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who was chosen for Team Canada in 2014, had a broken leg at the time. Like the rest of the NHL, he watched the 2018 Games from home. Sitting sixth in league scoring (14-21—35), he would have been a lock for his first Olympic appearance.
Likewise American forward J.T. Miller, having a good run with the Canucks (32 points in 31 games). He is 28. Bruins newcomer Erik Haula, 30, had an excellent chance to make the Finnish team. They’ll surely have better options in the next cycle.
“I definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities,” said Sidney Crosby, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. “These are experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of.”
No one in Bruins land will shed a tear for ex-Maple Leafs line-crosser Nazem Kadri, but his breakout season (11-27—38 in 24 games) at age 31 surely had Canada considering the gritty Avalanche center as a depth piece.
Same goes for the staff. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was dutifully preparing to be a Team Canada assistant under Jon Cooper. The 1983 Chicago first-round pick (18th overall) represented his country as a player during international tournaments, but never at the Games. Cassidy, 56, will have to remain at the top of his game for 2026.
“I’d be very disappointed,” Cassidy had said of the possibility of cancellation. “I’ve never been — as most people haven’t. I was really looking forward to it. It doesn’t matter where it was going to be — it was just the whole environment of the Olympics, being around the best athletes of the world in every sport.”
Teams looking for Mr. Wright
The “Pain for Shane” campaign is going well in Arizona, which entered the extended holiday break with six wins and 14 points in 29 games. The other teams with fewer than 10 wins — Montreal, Ottawa, and the Islanders — didn’t expect to be among the dregs of the league, but a shot at Shane Wright isn’t looking like a poor consolation prize.
The 17-year-old Wright, one of the potential stars for Team Canada in the World Junior Championship (slated to begin Sunday in Edmonton), has held onto his spot as the consensus top-rated choice for next summer’s draft. With an 11-19—30 line in 22 games with Kingston, he’s showing no ill effects from the OHL’s canceled season a year ago.
Wright attained exceptional status from the OHL to join the league as a 15-year-old, producing at a points-per-game level (1.14) that was second only to John Tavares (1.18 in 2006) among early entrants. Wright is billed as a combo sniper-playmaker, but he models his game after Patrice Bergeron.
The World Junior Championship will be contested with 50 percent attendance, as per Alberta regulations, with no eating or drinking allowed in the stands. As Wright and fellow Canadian Connor Bedard (the top prospect for the 2023 draft) produce highlight clips, Bruins fans will be tuning into Sweden’s games to watch Fabian Lysell. The first-rounder from last year (21st overall) is the only Black and Gold prospect playing in the WJC. Shipped to WHL Vancouver to start his North American career, the pace-pushing, right-shot winger will be a secondary scorer for the Swedes. His 11-17—28 line in 23 games ranked second among first-year WHL players.
As always, Team USA has some local connections: netminder Drew Commesso (Norwell/Boston University), defensemen Ian Moore (Concord/Harvard) and Scott Morrow (Darien, Conn./UMass), forwards Matty Beniers (Hingham), Brett Berard (East Greenwich, R.I./Providence College), Mackie Samoskevich (Sandy Hook, Conn.), Matt Coronato (Harvard), and Ty Smilanic (Quinnipiac).
Beniers, the No. 2 overall choice by the Kraken last summer, is off to a strong start with a loaded Michigan squad (11-11―22 in 20 games). Unfortunately for the Bruins, the same cannot be said of 2019 first-rounder Johnny Beecher. The junior, who has struggled with injuries the last two years, has four points in 12 games.
Carolina is believed to be the first team since Toronto (2002) to have 10 prospects at the World Junior Championship. The Bruins are one of eight teams (Arizona, Calgary, Colorado, the Islanders, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, and Washington) with one or zero prospects playing in the tournament … One of the reasons the injury-ravaged Penguins entered the break with a firm grip on a wild-card spot in the East: Danton Heinen. The versatile ex-Bruin, shipped to Anaheim in February 2020 for the disappointing Nick Ritchie, has provided Penguins GM Ron Hextall with 9-5—14 totals in 30 games, for a bargain $1.1 million cap hit. Meanwhile, Nick Foligno, Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s $3.8 million free agent upgrade on Ritchie, had zero goals and four assists in 18 games. The leading scorer in the Penguins’ lineup: ex-BU Terrier Evan Rodrigues (10-13—23 in 30 games), whose career high is 29 points … Ex-Bruins winger Brett Connolly, now with Chicago, got a proper penalty (four games) for steamrolling defenseless Dallas forward Tanner Kero. All for hard, clean hits, but blindsiding someone who’s looking the other way shows little respect for an opponent … New Jersey’s Mason Geertsen, who likes to mix it up, yelling “go get vaccinated!” at Tyler Bertuzzi is evidence the players aren’t letting their only unjabbed colleague off easy. Bertuzzi had 21 points in 23 games despite missing three of Detroit’s games in Canada and five others while in COVID protocol … Stick tap to Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin for being a stand-up guy. During warm-ups against the Islanders on Dec. 14, Larkin accidentally bumped into the glass behind the net, spilling a fan’s beer. Larkin, who was wearing a microphone, immediately realized the misfortune he caused — there are no cheap beers at Little Caesars Arena, or any arena in pro sports. “Oh no,” Larkin said to a teammate. “I feel terrible.” He went to the bench and called for locker room attendant Rick Szuber, who grabbed a $20 bill from Larkin’s stall and delivered it to the front row. The fan, Maj Abdelnour, told player-turned-podcaster Darren McCarty that he pocketed the bill for good luck … Money was more of an issue in Calgary, where the Flames informed their home city of their intention to back out of a new arena deal. Mayor Jyoti Gondek called it “staggering” that the team would walk away over a reported $19 million in additional costs, $10 million of which the city expected the Flames to pay. What’s clear: The Saddledome, built in 1983, is far beyond its best days … Fun fact: Seattle winger Calle Järnkrok’s last name means “iron hook” in Swedish … Need a late Christmas gift idea? Collectable.com is auctioning shares of a game-worn Bobby Orr jersey from the 1970-71 season, when he set an assist record (102) and finished plus-124 (still the record). The jersey — one of a few, given how sweaters in those days were stitched and re-stitched to remain in use — is valued at $400,000. Investors can grab a share for $10 … Thoughts are with the family of Matt Shott, the Coyotes’ senior director of hockey development who died of bile duct cancer this past week. He was 34. Those who knew him remembered him as a passionate advocate for hockey, especially girls’ hockey, in the Arizona valley area.