VOORHEES, N.J. — As Felix Sandstrom hustled onto the ice a tad tardy, his Flyers teammates tapped their sticks.
They had a second goalie for practice and the faux stand-in could step aside.
The Flyers' roster gymnastics on Monday mirrored the madness of last season when the coronavirus pandemic caused constant hurdles. The club had its first official practice following the NHL-mandated holiday break and saw three more players enter the NHL's COVID protocol. Carter Hart, Scott Laughton and Derick Brassard joined Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Morgan Frost as the Flyers' COVID-related absences.
With the NHL temporarily reinstating taxi squads because of the concerns over the virus, the Flyers called up Sandstrom, Jackson Cates and Gerry Mayhew from AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley. Monday's practice was originally scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET. However, with the number of adjustments, the Flyers pushed it back closer to 1 p.m. ET. Sandstrom made his way to Flyers Training Center as quickly as he could.
The bad news for the Flyers is they will open a four-game West Coast road trip Wednesday without Hart, Laughton and Brassard. They also likely won't have Couturier, either.
The good news for the Flyers is they are expected to see the returns of Hayes and Frost, who are set to join Max Willman in exiting the league's COVID protocol. Willman practiced Monday after entering COVID protocol Dec. 17. Frost has been out since being pulled during the first period of the Flyers' game Dec. 14, while Hayes was removed at the start of practice a week ago.
"We're hoping to get Morgan Frost cleared this afternoon," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said Monday. "The doctors felt with some of the symptoms that he had that he needed to undergo the cardiac screening, which the earliest we could do was 1 o'clock today. All going well — and we have no reason to assume it won't — but all going well with the cardiac screening, he'll be cleared this afternoon and be available for practice tomorrow.
"Kevin Hayes has been completely asymptomatic. He had a negative PCR test yesterday and if this morning's test, which we'll get the results of tonight, is negative, then he will test out of the COVID protocol. Hopefully he'll be at practice tomorrow, too.
"No guarantee but we're hopeful that both Frosty and Kevin will be available to practice and available to go on the road trip tomorrow."
With the NHL enhancing its COVID-19 measures, teams now conduct daily rapid tests. If a player tests positive, lab-based RT-PCR testing is used as a follow-up to determine a confirmed positive or negative.
According to the NHL's COVID protocol document from the start of this season, if a player tests as a confirmed positive but is asymptomatic, he will undergo daily lab-based RT-PCR tests. And if the player has two or more consecutive negative tests, he is eligible to exit his isolation and return as long as it adheres with local health laws.
If a player tests as a confirmed positive and is symptomatic, he must remain out for at least 10 days from when he originally felt symptoms, as well as at least 24 hours from his last fever.
With Hart, Laughton and Brassard all entering COVID protocol Monday, it's possible they'll miss the team's entire four-game road swing. The Flyers begin the trip with a back-to-back set as they face the Kraken on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET/NBCSP) and the Sharks on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET/NBCSP). The back half of the trip wraps up against the Kings on New Year's Day Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET/NBCSP) and the Ducks on the following Tuesday (10 p.m. ET/NBCSP).
Couturier entered COVID protocol Dec. 21, so he could rejoin the lineup at some point during the trip.
"Hard to say," Fletcher said. "The players that went on today, I would assume it's unlikely for all of them. Potentially you could get somebody back maybe for the last game in Anaheim, but I don't expect anybody would clear in the next four to five days.
"We're down a few centers right now, there's no question about that. I think we're down five or six centers, so getting [Hayes and Frost] back would help. Opportunity for everybody and the coaches I'm sure will work hard to put everybody in a position to succeed."
For now, it's wait-and-see mode daily for the Flyers and teams across the NHL in regard to player availability.
"Everybody coming on this trip has to be ready," Fletcher said. "As we've seen, every morning you wake up, you don't know what's going to happen to you that day. Hopefully everybody that's on the trip will be mentally and physically prepared to go."
Martin Jones will start Wednesday in net for the Flyers against the Kraken. Interim head coach Mike Yeo said he wouldn't rule out Jones playing the second game of the back-to-back set, as well. The Flyers will make that decision after Wednesday's game. One would think Jones very well could get both games considering the Flyers are coming off a longer break and Thursday's matchup is against the 31-year-old's former club in San Jose.
"We had sort of an original plan that obviously we're not going to get to follow," Yeo said. "As far as looking at these two games, we were thinking that if Hartsy would play the first game, Jonesy would be going head to head against his former team. Ideally, you're splitting those up. I just told Jonesy on the ice that that plan's out the window. We want Jonesy to play our first game and from there, we'll just make a determination. We're certainly very comfortable and confident playing Felix. I've had a chance to watch him play. He really looks like he has taken a step in his career."
The Flyers had an upbeat and physical practice.
"I think we were just excited to get back out there after a little break," Willman said. "Seeing a couple of guys leave the rink after testing, it's frustrating, it's a little annoying, but it is what it is."
Come Wednesday, the Flyers will have gone 10 days between games. They are 12-12-5 overall and last played Dec. 18, picking up a 4-3 OT win over the Senators. Yeo has the Flyers on a season-best five-game point streak (4-0-1).
"We've got a group that's really trying to work, to continue to build and grow," Yeo said. "We want to carry on that momentum that we had going into the break. We're starting to develop some confidence in our game and some areas of our game that we really feel that we can take some steps. This was an opportunity to have a great practice today. I know it's not easy, there are distractions — we had to push practice back, we've got the shooter tutor out there for the guys. But the good teams and the character teams, they don't use excuses. They don't find this as an opportunity to not come out and take advantage of a day like today. I thought our guys did a great job, making sure that they kept their focus, making sure the work ethic was there."
On Sunday, defenseman Ryan Ellis and two club staff members were placed in COVID protocol. The Flyers had an optional skate, with some players utilizing the day to travel back to the area or undergo their COVID-19 testing. Ellis had already been out as he's rehabbing from a lower-body injury.
At practice Monday, staff-wise, the Flyers had Yeo, assistant coach Kim Dillabaugh, player development coach Nick Schultz and skills coach Angelo Ricci on the ice. Assistant coach Darryl Williams was not present.
The revised NHL holiday break was last Wednesday through Saturday. Many other clubs were already shut down before Wednesday. The Flyers had their final pre-break game postponed Tuesday because of COVID-related issues affecting the Capitals.
"A lot of people stayed local, some people went home," Fletcher said. "You're hoping that guys make good decisions but this pandemic is raging right now. It's so contagious. I think everybody is trying to do the right thing, but it may not matter. If you come into contact with a family member or somebody that may be asymptomatic, maybe they have it. It looks like we had a few players that tested positive upon return. Who knows, maybe they've been positive for a few days and didn't know it, so maybe a couple of these players will be able to return a little quicker than 10 days, but we'll see.
"Thankfully right now, I can tell you nobody is very sick, so we're fortunate. That's the most important thing: everyone's health and safety. A couple of people have had moderate symptoms, but most have either been asymptomatic or very mild symptoms that dissipated pretty quickly. We're fortunate there and we're just hopeful that continues and we get people back as quickly as possible."
If Hayes and Frost can in fact return Wednesday, here is a projected lineup for the Flyers:
Oskar Lindblom-Claude Giroux-Cam Atkinson
Joel Farabee-Kevin Hayes-Travis Konecny
Max Willman-Morgan Frost-James van Riemsdyk
Jackson Cates-Patrick Brown-Zack MacEwen
Ivan Provorov-Justin Braun
Travis Sanheim-Rasmus Ristolainen
Keith Yandle-Kevin Connauton
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