How Detroit Red Wings plan to use taxi squad — and who might get bumped off

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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Less than a week into the 2021 season, the NHL already has had to reschedule multiple games because of COVID-19. The Detroit Red Wings have seen a couple of their games change, and have players on the league’s pandemic protocol list.

One of the ways the league hopes to facilitate teams being able to complete their seasons is via the use of taxi squads. Those players stand out during Wings’ practices, dressed in grey sweaters in contrast to the red and white sweaters worn by the NHL group. The grey group numbers defensemen Dennis Cholowski and Gustav Lindstrom, forwards Michael Rasmussen and Givani Smith, and goaltenders Kevin Boyle and Calvin Pickard.

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The group is likely to change provided the AHL is able to start as scheduled Feb. 5. General manager Steve Yzerman and coach Jeff Blashill both have stated it’s more important for the prospects to play games than practice. But for now, Cholowski, Lindstrom, Rasmussen and Smith have the opportunity to see firsthand what it takes to make it at the NHL level.

“If they are good at self evaluating, they can look at it and figure out what they need to get better at,” Blashill said Saturday. “What they can control is self evaluating, what do I need to get better at to earn a spot. That’s what you get by being around the NHL guys and by practicing with them. Then the other part of it, you get a lot of one-on-one attention with our skills development group.”

When the Wings started the season Jan. 14, Bobby Ryan was recovering from an injury and Darren Helm was on COVID protocol. So was defenseman Christian Djoos, but that was because he traveled on a commercial jet to Detroit after being claimed off waivers Jan. 9 and has had to quarantine. Ryan was cleared Friday, and Helm has been cleared to practice, but he’ll need time to work his way into the lineup because “protocol states that after your quarantine period is up, you have to for sure have 14 days of no rigorous exercise,” Blashill said.

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That leaves the taxi squad players to wait and see if they will be needed. They will travel with the team, giving them extra opportunity to learn.

“Any experience at this level is valuable,” veteran defenseman Marc Staal said. “Being around a professional dressing room and being able to practice with the guys is invaluable. As much as you can take in, you take in. Those guys are looking to improve and get better. And going through the season, we are going to need a lot of those guys. It’s good for them to improve and stay ready.”

Cholowski and Rasmussen are former first-round picks who already have logged time with the Wings. Cholowski, 21, started the previous two seasons with the Wings, but didn’t show enough growth to stick around. He is an NHL-caliber skater who can transport the puck and make good passes, but the organization wants to see him play with more assertiveness, and cut down on bad decisions.

Rasmussen is 21 and 6 feet 6. The Wings want him to use that size to be effective in front of the net.

When the Wings announced the taxi squad, one name left off was Evgeny Svechnikov, a first-round pick from 2015. He was assigned to the minors Jan. 12, hours after he cleared waivers.

“We make our decisions and I don’t really feel we have to share those reasons,” Blashill said. “We made our decisions and we will continue to evaluate as we move forward.”

If a prospect on the taxi squad isn’t in the Wings’ lineup when the Grand Rapids Griffins start their season, the Wings are expected to rely more on older minor league players to staff the taxi squad.

“Our approach right now is worrying about the next two weeks,” Blashill said. “We will make a decision at that time. Up until that point, we have two things here with the taxi squad: One, their readiness to step into a game and help us if needed, and two, continue to maximize their development. They are all young players that need to continue to develop their game. We are working those two modes to best use the taxi squad.”

Contact Helene St. James at Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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