Detroit – Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman had to make moves behind his bench and on the ice prior to the 8 p.m. Saturday game with the New Jersey Devils at Little Caesars Arena.
Head coach Jeff Blashill and starting goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic were put on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, and will miss the game along with left wing Givani Smith, center Carter Rowney and assistant coach Alex Tanguay.
Then, less than one hour before puck drop, the Red Wings announced on Twitter that left wing Filip Zadina had been added to that list and would be unavailable against New Jersey.
Red Wings assistant coach Doug Houda will be joined Saturday night by Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Ben Simon and assistant coach Todd Krygier.
Also up from Grand Rapids are goaltender Calvin Pickard, 28, and forward Riley Barber, 27. Both have NHL experience.
“We had the test for Jeff Blashill (Friday),” said Yzerman. “The positives were yesterday, and the only positive we had today is Nedeljkovic. The guys come in every morning and have their tests. It takes about 30 minutes to get the results. I think Ned was here about 9 a.m., and by 9:30, unfortunately, you get a call with the update.”
Yzerman had to make adjustments not only to his roster but his coaching staff.
“The coaches don’t listen to me any way when the puck’s dropped,” said Yzerman, smiling and applying tongue to cheek. “So, I don’t have to do anything different (laughter). These guys will ignore me like Jeff would if he were here. So, no, for the coaches, we’re very fortunate that Grand Rapids is two hours away.”
And the Griffins’ weekend games with the Toronto Marlies had been postponed because of COVID-19 protocol. Grand Rapids resumes play Wednesday, hosting the Milwaukee Admirals. Yzerman said Blashill will discuss tonight’s game with Houda, Simon and Krygier, adding that the communication will continue during the game via headsets or phone calls.
Yzerman said, “My understanding is that Ben is gong to be the acting coach.”
Saturday’s roster movement comes as the NHL deals with a surge of COVID-related issues, including postponements. The Red Wings’ game scheduled for Monday against the Avalanche already has been postponed because of COVID-related issues with Colorado.
On Wednesday, the Red Wings placed forwards Robby Fabbri and Michael Rasmussen into the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, and forward Tyler Bertuzzi and defensemen Marc Staal and Danny DeKeyser recently have returned from the list after missing multiple games.
Yzerman said his players have not asked for a game shut down, and have been “acceptive” of the testing, which went from once every three days to daily.
“Ultimately,” said Yzerman, “I think they just want to play. Nobody wants to get violently ill or deathly ill. Guys are willing to do their part. … Nobody’s experienced any significant illness. Right now, it’s like a minor cold.”
He said not everyone connected to the team has had their booster shots, but added that he is “encouraging” them to get that third vaccine. Yzerman noted that players have had “false positive” tests in the past. Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin, pulled from a game against the Dallas Stars because of a positive test, was determined to have one of those false positives and returned to action.
Yzerman was asked if he had the ability to recommend games being postponed to the NHL based on COVID-19 claiming a number of players and coaches.
“I think I can call the league and tell them – give them my opinion – and they will take it into consideration,” said Yzerman. “But I think they’re going to act and make a decision based on the health of everyone involved, for the health of society in general.
“I think they’re trying to be responsible, taking the integrity of each game into account as well. The reality is we want to play these games, and you weigh off playing them now with a depleted roster versus packing these games in towards the end of the schedule. Every team affected has done everything they can to keep playing, and I’m OK with that.”
Yzerman said he believes the NHL “is being consistent” in determining whether or not games are played.
“As long as we’re playing,” added Yzerman, “we’ve got to figure out a way to win games. Some guys are getting a great opportunity to play – whether it’s Thomas Greiss in net tonight or Riley Barber or (recently-recalled left wing) Taro Hirose (Big Ten Player of the Year in 2019 for Michigan State). I’m not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves.
“Ultimately, if we have enough players and it’s deemed safe enough, and I believe it is, we’ll keep playing.”
Yzerman added, “There’s a whole lot of questions I don’t have answers to.” But he stressed that the coaching adjustments should “be a relatively seamless transition.”
He concluded, “We’ll ice the best team that we can.”