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With seven New York Islanders in COVID-19 protocols, why didn’t games get postponed sooner?

NHL: Calgary Flames at New York Islanders
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, the NHL announced that New York Islanders hockey games scheduled through the end of November (at minimum) would be postponed.

The announcement came on the heels of the club identifying another player entering the COVID-19 protocols, who turned out to be forward Casey Cizikas. The fourth line grinder tested positive following the club’s 1-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, their eighth straight loss and their third straight at their new arena.

Things started to go downhill for the Isles when Josh Bailey tested positive for the virus in the club’s 6-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. Top pairing defender Ryan Pulock was also sidelined with an injury in that contest, though Bailey’s absence had a clear snowball effect. Shortly after the New York Islanders announced that Bailey would remain in Florida to quarantine, captain Anders Lee and forward Ross Johnston also entered the league’s COVID protocol. They were later joined by Anthony Beauvillier (who had a false positive and only missed one game), Zdeno Chara, Andy Greene, Adam Pelech, and then Cizikas.

The protocols left gaping holes in the club’s lineup, with only Noah Dobson and Scott Mayfield left as starters on the blue line, and only Mathew Barzal and Kyle Palmieri remaining in the club’s top six fowards (Brock Nelson suffered an injury in the team’s November 21 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs). In short, the New York Islanders’ roster quickly became their AHL affiliate’s lineup.

Lineup holes like that certainly make for a distinct disadvantage, and the Isles certainly played like they were missing their core. Opposing teams only had to cover Barzal to neutralize almost all offensive threats, and the frustration was evident in his gameplay. The question remains: why did it take the NHL so long to postpone Islanders games?

NHL drops the ball by not postpoining New York Islanders games earlier

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders
Nov 26, 2021; Elmont, New York, USA; New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) sprays water on his face during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at UBS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Beauvillier’s false positive came mere hours before the team’s home opener on November 20, giving the New York Islanders almost no time to scramble for a solution. Greene, Pelech and Chara joined the protocols together. Replacing three defenseman that quickly seems impossible.

When the Ottawa Senators had 10 players and an assistant coach (former Isles coach Jack Capuano) test positive for the virus, the league postponed three games. The San Jose Sharks had seven players and a coach test positive without any games being postponed, and the Pittsburgh Penguins had a handful of players–including captain Sidney Crosby–enter the protocol without any games postponed. What is the league’s threshold for postponing games?

What is the difference between the New York Islanders seven players and the San Jose Sharks seven players? Why are the Isles afforded a luxury not given to the Sharks? But, most importantly, what is taking the league so long to act on these significant roster holes?

A team missing seven of their starting eighteen players is facing a significant barrier, one that their opponents can easily exploit. In last season’s shortened season, seven players in protocol always meant postponed games. Why did the New York Islanders have to play three lackluster games before the league said enough was enough? Cizikas’ entrance into protocol came as Josh Bailey cleared it, so the number seven did not change before the postponement happened. What make Cizikas the breaking point?

Could the fact that every person in the New York Islanders orbit has been vaccinated, as has every Ottawa Senator, have something to do with the postponed games? After all, the league fined and suspended the Sharks’ Evander Kane for offering a fake Covid vaccination card, and the Sharks may have incurred a punishment for his mistake. It can’t be the standing the protocol players have on their roster, as the Sharks’ list included Erik Karlsson and Timo Meier, both important players for their team. The Sharks even lost a coach, where the New York Islanders didn’t.

It’s unclear why there’s some grey area in terms of cancelling games and why there are inconsistencies around the league. Ultimately, though, players health and safety should come first, and the NHL should have a steady, publicized limit in place that dictates Covid protocols in terms of cancelling games, for both the opponents’ well-being and, as a secondary, the team’s chance at winning.