SUNRISE — When the Florida Panthers returned to practice for the first time since Dec. 17 on Sunday, all seven players who were in Covid-19 protocols were on the ice.
Aaron Ekblad, who was joined by Ryan Lomberg, Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas, Brandon Montour, Sam Bennett and Frank Vatrano on the team’s Covid-19 list, was excited to be back out there.
“The passion for the game is extremely high right now. Getting back out there was awesome, seeing the boys was amazing,” Ekblad said.
“That was kind of the worst part, sitting upstairs in your room doing a whole lot of nothing for 10 days, but now I’m really happy to get back out there.”
For every positive, there was a negative. The Panthers added four players to Covid protocol: Owen Tippett, Eetu Luostarinen, MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau.
It is possible those four players will have to miss Wednesday’s game against the New York Rangers.
Florida general manager Bill Zito said before practice that there were no players added to the Covid-19 protocol list in the time between when the postponements started on Dec. 17 through the league’s holiday break.
Zito also said that Spencer Knight will be returning to Florida after being sent down to Charlotte on Dec. 17.
His flight to Fort Lauderdale was canceled on Sunday, so he wasn’t at practice, but he will report to the team on Monday.
The league added new regulations on Sunday to help teams that were struggling with Covid-19 related issues per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
This included the temporary return of the taxi squad, which teams can optionally use to carry a maximum of six extra players on their roster up until the All-Star break.
“We’re sorting through it right now,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “Talking with [Zito,] I think we’re on it and trying to figure out the legalities of what we’re entailed to do, so we’ll have one at some point. We’re just in discussion of what, who, and when right now.”
In order to be eligible for the taxi squad, a player must not be waiver exempt, on the team’s roster as of Dec. 22, other than players on an emergency recall. Players also cannot have been on the roster for 75 percent of regular-season days or played in 16 of the team’s last 20 games.
Knight would not be eligible for the taxi squad, as games a goaltender dressed in as a backup but did not play count as “played.”
Also included in the new rules is a salary cap exemption for teams in danger of dressing less than two goaltenders, six defensemen, and 12 skaters and the allowance for teams to add an additional goaltender to the roster when two regulars are unavailable.
Jonas Johansson, who the team claimed off of waivers on Dec. 13, could prove to be valuable for the Panthers with these new rules in place.
“The goaltending department has liked Johansson for a long, long time,” Zito said. “He’s a very good player, and when a player like that becomes available, you grab them.
“There were some injury issues in regard to the goaltending situation, and that in tandem with the scouting reports and some history led us to pursue the acquisition.”