Sunday, December 26, 2021


MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- The Blues were hoping to not have anyone among the 40-plus, and growing, number of players affected by testing for COVID-19 when skaters returned to their respective facilities on Sunday to resume practice activities.

The key word there being "hoping" and unfortunately, they were hit with the positive bugaboo again with forwards Ivan Barbashev, James Neal and Dakota Joshua and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo the latest victims to positive tests.

Barbashev was backdated to Dec. 23 when he received his positive test, but the other three were upon testing on Sunday when the Blues (17-9-5) resumed practicing for the resumption of their season, which is slated to get going for them again Wednesday when they host the Edmonton Oilers before traveling to Minnesota to face the Wild in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis.

"It’s certainly not surprising, coming off the number of positive tests as we paused the season," said Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, who also indicated none of the four players had symptoms. "Going into the holidays, I’m certainly not surprised by our positive returns, and the multitude around the league."

There were at least 40-plus positive tests around the league on Sunday, and with the Blues' aforementioned four, and forward Oskar Sundqvist already on it, this gives the Blues 14 players that have tested positive at one point or another this season. They join Brandon Saad, Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, Niko Mikkola, Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Ville Husso, Jordan Binnington and since-traded Kyle Clifford.

"We were all uncertain for sure," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "Everybody's scattered all over with family and all kinds of things going on. You come back and you test and it's everywhere."

The unfortunate news for Bortuzzo, Barbashev, Joshua and Neal is that they will miss the Winter Classic.

Barbashev was in the middle of a career year with 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 31 games and was well on pace to break his single-season high in all three categories, which is 14 goals in 2018-19, 15 assists in 2019-20 and 26 points in 18-19 and 19-20.

"Yeah, obviously seeing around the league too, all the guys and everything. It's unfortunate, but it's going around the league," O'Reilly said. "There's nothing we can do. It's sit and wait and be safe. Hopefully we don't get too many games postponed. It would be nice to get back to playing. We'll see."

* Relief on the way -- With the ever-rising positive cases going on, the NHL finally implemented a host of new rules in place for relief to teams that are dealing with the possibility of losing players for protocol reasons.

Teams will have a temporary taxi squad in place that began Sunday and goes away after each team's final game prior to the All-Star break, with six players per team per squad capped out as the maximum with no minimum. No player shall be on the taxi squad for more than 20 cumulative days.

There is also a roster emergency exception that allows teams to recall a player if their cap hit is $1 million or less and the team does not now need to play shorthanded -- like the Blues did three times -- prior to using the emergency relief recall.

"That definitely helps for sure," Berube said. "Then you don't have to play shorthanded. We'll see what happens, but it's helpful for sure."

It's something the Blues were wanting and hoping for, for a long time and are finally getting now.

"Obviously I was in favor of it maybe six or eight weeks ago," Armstrong said. "I think it’s the right thing to do. I think COVID is its own animal. It’s not related to hockey in any stretch. I think taxiing a small number of players might not prevent COVID but it might add to injuries. So I think the rules that are in place now we’re going to guarantee 18 skaters, or try anved guarantee 18 skaters and two goalies a night. And I think that’s a positive for the league and for the fans.

"Once we found out that the vaccines didn’t work to prevent COVID, they just mitigated the severity of it, I thought it was appropriate to make the decision earlier. But I think just with the number of cases over the last little while, teams weren’t going to be able to put competitive (teams)."

* Injured reinforcements on the way -- The good news of all this is that the Blues had several injured skaters on the ice once again, including David Perron (upper body), Robert Thomas (lower body), Jordan Kyrou (upper body), Jake Walman (upper body), Ville Husso (lower body) and Brayden Schenn (upper body).

All were full participants in practice on Sunday and most, if not all, could be available for Wednesday's scheduled home game against the Edmonton Oilers.

"It was nice to see all the guys back skating, looked good," O'Reilly said. "I know it's just practice, but the energy looked good. Looked like they were moving well. It's nice. It's nice to have that break and a couple days when we are banged up that we can get some guys healthy and back. It's one positive thing out of these games being postponed."

Perron has missed the past 11 games, Kyrou has missed five, Thomas has missed seven, Husso has missed six, Walman has also missed six and Schenn has missed three.

"The 29th is the next day we have circled and we’re hoping to get players back as we move on from that – in all areas of the ice, not just down the middle of the ice," Armstrong said. "... Since we’re going to have a couple more (practices), I’m hoping they’re going to knock on the coach’s door and say they’re ready to play in our next game, whenever that is. Again, that’s not for a couple of days at the earliest so I’m not too concerned about that."

Sundqvist is eligible to come off the COVID protocol list Tuesday.

"Sunny's back in a couple days, 'Tommer' looks good out there, Kyrou," Berube said. "Walman looks good too and then Schenn practiced for most of the practice with us. He's feeling pretty good. Perron too."

Schenn's practice was his first with the team since he left a 3-2 overtime loss on Dec. 12 against the Anaheim Ducks.

"He looked really good," O'Reilly said. "It was nice again for another body to see back was very nice. I thought he looked really good too. I don't think he did a ton of practice. He was just kind of easing back into it, but you could tell out there he was starting to move well, he's getting close. It's good to see."

"I think he's right on track with what he thought and what we thought," Berube said of Schenn. "I don't think it's a surprise that he was out there today."

* Blues represented at World Juniors -- The IIHF World Junior Championship is underway and started competition on Sunday in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta, and the Blues are represented by a trio of players, including forward Jake Neighbours (Canada), center Tanner Dickinson (USA) and defenseman Leo Loof (Sweden).

Armstrong normally likes to get to the tournament to get acquainted with Blues prospects but was unable to do so this year.

"I usually try and get there," Armstrong said. "This year is a little bit different. There’s no interaction with the players or the staff. They’re sequestered. You usually like to go and maybe introduce yourself to some parents, talk to some player agents there, meet the players, talk to them.

"It’s very sequestered now. So I’m not going. But it’s a great event. I talked to Jake the other day. He’s excited about it. We’re watching now and it’s going to be a great event. It’s usually a great time around the locker room in the NHL. Everyone’s side bets are going on now, and national pride starts to bubble up."

* Disappointment for no Olympics -- Armstrong was the architect for Team Canada in preparation for the 2022 Beijing Games and O'Reilly (Canada) was among some of the Blues hopefuls of representing their respective countries that will obviously now not happen due to the NHL needing that down time in February to reschedule games.

Armstrong was Canada's GM and has since stepped down from that post.

"It’s something we were hoping to go," Armstrong said. "More importantly, hoping as a fan that the NHL players would go. Seeing best on best in the past has been rewarding for the game. The thought of seeing some of these younger players that we didn’t see in ’18 in the Olympics, gelling with some of the guys we saw in ’14 was gonna be fantastic. But I certainly support the league’s and the union’s decision to sit this one out for obvious reasons. We gotta get 82 games in, or we’d love to get 82 games in on the NHL this year. That’s the most important thing. You know, 2026 is not far away for a lot of these guys. So it’ll keep the carrot in front of that group.

"It’s certainly disappointing, but certainly understandable."

O'Reilly added, "I think it's disappointing. For myself, it's the first time I've ever really been considered for it and had a chance. I think it was something that I was hopeful that it was something I might be able to participate in, but the most important thing is the NHL and the season and getting the season done. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. It's the way COVID ... through everything we've been through the last few years, you could see it coming start coming on there that you knew that it probably wouldn't happen. Just try to focus on the season and go from there."

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