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What does it mean when a player goes on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list?

Backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney went on the list on Saturday. What does that mean for the Lightning?
Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph (7) works in the crease with defenseman Jan Rutta (44) in front of goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during training camp earlier this month in Tampa.
Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph (7) works in the crease with defenseman Jan Rutta (44) in front of goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during training camp earlier this month in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 17
Updated Jan. 18

TAMPA — The Lightning received their first coronavirus-related scare this season when backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney went on the league’s COVID-19 protocol list Saturday.

The league created the list to distinguish any player absence due to the coronavirus from an absence related to an injury. In the Toronto and Edmonton playoff bubbles last season, unavailable players were universally labeled “unfit to play,” with no distinction. But though the protocol list creates a distinction this season, there’s still a lot of ambiguity when a player lands on it.

When a player is placed on the list, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he has received a confirmed positive test. Other than identifying the player affected, the league doesn’t release any other information.

So, with the Lightning off Saturday and Sunday, implications of McElhinney being on the list likely won’t be known until today, such as if other players go on the list or if multiple players are missing when the Lightning is scheduled to return to practice. We can infer a worst-case scenario if the Lightning cancel practice, which would make three straight days off the ice.

McElhinney remained on the list Sunday, and there were no Lightning additions.

We do know this: The Lightning had already decided they weren’t going to practice Saturday following Friday’s 5-2 win over the Blackhawks. The decision to not practice Sunday was made in reaction to McElhinney going on the protocol list. Though that was a seemingly smart move — especially because Tampa Bay has five days scheduled between games after two against the Stars were rescheduled due to a Dallas coronavirus outbreak — it also indicated there was a legitimate level of concern that the Lightning feared a bigger coronavirus issue.

Coach Jon Cooper gave an ominous answer last week when asked whether he’d consider separating his goaltenders to ensure one would always be healthy, a practice the Bruins have followed. Cooper said he believed if one player became infected, others would, too.

“I don’t know if separating your teammates is going to do a whole heck of a lot since we’re with each other all the time,” Cooper said. “We’re playing games, we’re in the trenches together, so I think the onus is on all of us to make sure we look after ourselves so we don’t put ourselves or put our team in situations. Because if you do have one or two players get it, I think it’s going to have a trickle-down effect to more than just those two players.”

After restarting their seasons in bubbles last season, the NHL and NBA have found this season that letting teams play in their home cities makes handling the coronavirus more difficult. Through Sunday night, the NBA had called off 13 games since Jan. 10 because of virus issues. The Stars’ outbreak prompted 10 games to be rescheduled around the NHL through Sunday.

NHL virus protocols, which include social distancing and mask wearing when players are not on the ice, essentially tell players to avoid contact with the general public, and Lightning players have been told not to pose for photos or sign autographs for fans.

But how realistic is it for players to keep themselves completely safe outside a bubble? And a bigger question: Once a player has a confirmed positive test, how realistic is preventing a spread?

The nature of the game itself is an issue. Players send each other into the glass, are practically face-to-face in the faceoff circle and are in close proximity as they battle for possession of the puck. On the bench, they are essentially packed shoulder to shoulder.

Their biggest safeguard against the virus is daily testing. Players and staff are tested daily, a practice that started upon entry to training camp and will continue through at least the first four weeks of the regular season. At that point, the process will be re-evaluated, and testing could change to every 48 hours.

According to league protocols, any player who receives an initial positive result must immediately self-isolate and the team must begin contact tracing. If a second test on the initial one comes back positive, the player’s test is confirmed positive and the player must continue isolating. But even if a player’s second test is negative, he still must test negative for two more consecutive days to exit the protocol.

Any player who exhibits coronavirus symptoms must see a team physician and the club’s infectious disease consultant to determine the next steps, but further testing isn’t necessarily mandatory. If a player is a close contact of someone who received a confirmed positive test, he must enter the protocol.

To exit the protocol, a player must exhibit no symptoms and produce two negative tests over 48 hours.

So McElhinney going on the protocol list could mean only that he’ll be out for a few days while he undergoes confirmation testing. Or it could be the first domino falling in a more complicated situation for the Lightning.

We will find out in the next few days.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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