The Central Division is fun this year

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You know all about Chicago and Detroit and their game last night shows why they’re still the marquee matchup in the Central Division, but things are different this year.

Detroit’s win put them back in first place but it’s a lead that’s perilous at best as both Chicago and St. Louis are equal to them in points with 53. Factor in the Nashville Predators with 48 and you’ve got a division race that’s set up to be one of the best in the NHL this year.

With Ken Hitchcock taking over St. Louis and helping the Blues realize their potential, it’s no longer just Detroit and Chicago treating the other three teams like also-rans. The steady improvement of Nashville over the years and the Blues return to glory have made the Central Division into a four-way dance for one of the top spots in the Western Conference. Sorry Columbus, but your bad season couldn’t have come at a worse time.

After seeing the Pacific Division manage to put four out of five teams in the playoffs last year, the Central is where it’s at this season.

Oilers’ Green joins list of players opting out of NHL return

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Edmonton’s Mike Green and Boston’s Steven Kampfer are opting out. Dallas defenseman Roman Polak isn’t reporting for now, and Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos isn’t reporting at full strength.

In the aftermath of a deal being struck to resume the NHL season, Aug. 1, Green, Kampfer and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi on Saturday joined Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic among players choosing not to participate in the expanded 24-team playoffs.

”Due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 and after much consideration, I’ve decided for deeply personal family health reasons not to participate in the return to play,” Green said in a statement released by the Oilers.

Kampfer, who played 10 games with the Bruins this season, said his wife and son have a congenital defect that could cause complications with the virus and called it ”one of the hardest decisions” he has had to make.

Polak is not on the Stars’ roster for the start of training camp Monday, and a team spokesman said the 34-year-old won’t be attending at this time.

Polak is a pending free agent who last month agreed to a deal in his native Czech Republic next season and told reporters there he wasn’t planning on returning to the NHL if play resumed. Baertschi, who spent most of this season in the minors, is under contract through 2020-21.

”Sven informed us late yesterday that he has chosen to opt out of the NHL return to play program,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. ”It was a difficult decision but ultimately one we respect and understand.”

The Lightning won’t have Stamkos at 100% for the opening of camp because of a lower-body injury, but they’re optimistic he’ll be ready when games get under way in early August. GM Julien BriseBois said Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

While Stamkos has a better chance of being ready for Tampa Bay’s next game than he would have after surgery if the playoffs had started in mid-April, the Flames will have to cope without Hamonic when they open their series against Winnipeg on Aug. 1.

Hamonic became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and my team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

The Minnesota Wild, who face the Canucks in the qualifying round, ruled out defenseman Greg Pateryn indefinitely with an upper-body injury. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday the league will be taking over injury and illness disclosure from teams as a way of protecting player privacy.

”Medical privacy is important in this process,” Daly said. ”Having said that, we understand as a league we have an obligation of some transparency with respect to the COVID virus in particular, so at least for now we’re going to maintain a policy where the league is announcing on basically league numbers and clubs are really prohibited from giving any information with respect to COVID test results, and, for purposes of making the system work, any injury information going forward.”

Lightning’s Stamkos injured again at start of training camp

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Captain Steven Stamkos will be limited at the start of Tampa Bay Lightning training camp because of a new lower-body injury.

General manager Julien BriseBois said Saturday that Stamkos fully recovered from core muscle surgery in early March but was injured again during voluntary workouts. Stamkos is expected to be ready for the start of the NHL’s expanded 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs in early August.

”We don’t have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games,” BriseBois said. ”He’s here, he’s skating, he’s been getting treatment, he’s been coming to Amalie (Arena) doing his dry land work. But he will not be a full participant on Day One of training camp.”

Unlike Stamkos, the Calgary Flames won’t have defenseman Travis Hamonic for the resumption of the hockey season after he decided to opt out for family reasons. Hamonic on Friday night became the first player to publicly choose not to play in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hamonic’s daughter was hospitalized last year with respiratory issues, and he and his wife also have a baby boy. Their health concerns, not the soon-to-be 30-year-old’s impending free agency, led him to opt out.

”I wish I could lace up my skates and be out there battling, blocking a shot and helping my team win, but my family has and always will come first,” Hamonic said. ”Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have. I love this game and by team. This is a decision that is extremely hard for me to make.”

Flames general manager Brad Treliving said, ”While we will miss Travis in our lineup, we understand and respect his decision.”

The Lightning already got a pandemic scare when three players and additional staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. The positive test results forced the team to close its facilities for a brief period of time.

Flames’ Hamonic is first player to opt out of NHL’s return

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Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has been the first player to opt out of the NHL’s Return to Play program.

“Earlier this evening Travis called me to inform us that he has decided to opt out of the NHL Return to Play Program,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “Travis explained that due to family considerations, he has made the difficult decision not to participate in the Stanley Cup Qualifier and Playoffs.

“While we will miss Travis in our line-up, we understand and respect his decision. Our focus remains on preparation for training camp and our upcoming series in the NHL Qualifying Round.”

[Full Stanley Cup Qualifying Round schedule]

As part of the RTP plan that was ratified Friday evening, any player can opt out without penalty by Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline.

In a statement posted through his agent’s Twitter account, Hamonic cited a respiratory virus his young daughter battled last year and the recent birth of his son as the reasons why he will not be joining the Flames.

“My family has and always will come first,” he said. “Being my little kids’ dad every day is the most important job I have.”

The 29-year-old Hamonic, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this off-season, played 50 games for Calgary this season. He recorded 12 points and was second the team in average ice time per game (21:12) behind Mark Giordano.

The Flames will face the Jets in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series in the Edmonton hub

MORE:
NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement

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The NHL and NHLPA made the return official: hockey is back.

Remarkably, the NHL and NHLPA also extended the Collective Bargaining Agreement through at least 2025-26, ensuring almost unthinkable labor peace for fans. None of this means that COVID-19 won’t wreck the party, but the NHL and NHLPA cemented those return details on Friday.

The timetable for the NHL return won’t leave much room to breathe. Players can opt-out of a return-to-play plan for a variety of reasons, but must make such decisions by Monday, July 13 at 5 p.m. ET.

This comes shortly after the two sides announced a memorandum of understanding earlier this week. The NHL attempting a two-city, 24-team playoff plan is bold enough; extending the CBA through at least 2025-26 makes this an incredible achievement. For hockey fans who’ve grown accustomed to lockouts, lasting labor peace feels almost unthinkable.

If hockey fans need more reasons to be ecstatic, consider this. The CBA extension sets the stage for NHL players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. That decision hinges on an agreement between the league and the International Olympic Committee, but this is a landmark day for the future of the NHL.

[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

Read more about the NHL return via this official document:

NHL playoff hubs in Edmonton and Toronto; 2020 Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton

After many twists and turns, Edmonton and Toronto were named as the two hub cities. Each city will host 12 teams (limited to 52 personnel apiece). Edmonton will hold the 12 Western Conference teams, and is also the planned spot for the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, the 12 Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto.

With COVID-19 spikes in areas like Las Vegas and protocol stumbles in Vancouver, it’s been difficult to forecast which cities would serve as the two hubs. Now we know. Edmonton, in particular, has avoided the worst of COVID-19 outbreaks. Toronto’s dealt with more struggles (see: the outbreaks in Ontario in the map below), but brings some strengths for the NHL while not being hit as hard as many problem areas in the U.S.:

Alberta with 8,482 cases; Ontario with 36,178 as of Thursday (via the Canadian government)

[More on Edmonton and Toronto serving as NHL playoff hubs.]

Now, for the when: Key Dates for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, NHL Free Agency, Draft

So, we just covered the “where” for the NHL’s playoff return to award a 2020 Stanley Cup. Let’s cover the “when.”

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out
July 26: Teams report to their hub city
July 28-30: Exhibition games
Aug 1: Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4)
Aug 10: Phase 2 of NHL Draft Lottery to determine No. 1 overall pick
Aug 11: First Round begins
Aug 25: Second Round begins
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded
Oct. 9-10: 2020 NHL Draft (must follow end of Cup Final and take place before free agency)
Mid-Oct.: free agent period opens
Nov. 17: Training camps open for 2020-21 season
Dec. 1: 2020-21 NHL season begins

All of dates listed are, of course, tentative.

[Want even more details on critical dates for the NHL return? Click here.]

CBA extension keeps NHL salary cap flat for at least 2020-21

NHL, NHLPA hammer out a CBA extension, including flat salary cap and return to Olympics

Again, these agreements don’t just cover a playoff format where the 2020 Stanley Cup would be awarded. The CBA extension means lockout prevention through 2025-26, and possibly even 2026-27. That CBA extension sets the stage for the NHL’s return to the Olympics, pending an agreement with the IOC.

Consider some of the high points. You can read more about the flat cap and other financial details here.

  • It’s possible that the two sides could extend the CBA for one additional season (through 2026-27).
  • The two sides agreed to a flat $81.5 million salary cap for 2020-21.
  • That $81.5 million mark could also stick for multiple seasons. It all hinges on whether or not revenue bounces back — and when.
  • Players hate escrow, so limiting its impact was key. There will be a 20-percent cap on escrow for 2020-21. From there, escrow will scale down until it drops to six percent.
  • The two sides agreed to bring NHL players back to Olympic competition — pending negotiations with the International Olympic Committee. If that goes through, NHL players would participate in 2022 Winter Olympics (in Beijing) and the 2026 Winter Olympics (in Milan).
  • Players will defer salary to account for the financial impact of COVID-19.
  • The CBA extension accounts for certain salary cap loopholes. In short, contracts won’t be as front-loaded, salary bonuses won’t be greatly changed, and no-trade clauses will be honored more faithfully.

So, again fans: rejoice, and hold your breath. Maybe cross your fingers, too — especially in hopes that this process happens as safely as possible. This is huge stuff, and PHT will cover the developments as they unfold.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.