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Sidney Crosby, Penguins return from long summer

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CRANBERRY, Pa. (AP) — Sidney Crosby has been back in Pittsburgh for a few weeks, participating in several informal practices while his Penguins teammates returned from an unusually long offseason. Still, the first day of training camp felt different Friday.

”It’s always an exciting time. You’re excited to see all the guys,” Crosby said. ”You’re energized by the start of the year.”

That’s not the only way this camp, in particular, differs. After winning two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins don’t enter the season as champs.

That said, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

”It’s a good challenge,” Crosby said, ”and it’s fun to be back out there.”

After being eliminated with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins will look slightly different while attempting to win a third championship in four seasons.

Forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick were traded to Buffalo on June 27. In their place, 21-year-old forward Daniel Sprong has a chance to play first-line right wing next to Crosby and left wing Jake Guentzel and Jack Johnson could bolster a shallow defense after signing a five-year, $16.25 million contract July 1.

Matt Cullen, a 41-year-old forward who was on the two title teams, signed a one-year, $650,000 contract to return to Pittsburgh. He should return to the fourth line after Tom Kuhnhackl joined the New York Islanders on a one-year contract.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t plan to approach this camp any differently, though.

”I think training camp is a great opportunity to establish our identity right away, to instill the right habits,” Sullivan said. ”It’s no secret we’re a team that likes to skate. So, our fitness level as a group is really important. We’re trying to establish that foundation right away.”

Sprong, who had 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL last season, helped push the tempo with Crosby during the first practice Friday. He remained there in a scrimmage, where set up a goal from Crosby in the right circle.

”You want to make a difference in camp and open eyes,” Sprong said. ”I think today was a good first day, but again, it’s only one day in camp. There’s many days left to go and you have to get better everyday.”

The Penguins have seemingly been in an endless search for a right wing that could play next to Crosby throughout his 13 NHL seasons.

Sheary seemed like the answer after scoring 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 61 games in 2016-17. That was before he regressed with 18 goals and 30 points in 79 games the following season.

With Sprong, they might have found the solution. His offensive upside could overcome what defensive pitfalls his game provides.

Even it Sprong doesn’t fit, Crosby wouldn’t be concerned.

”Whatever the combinations are, I think we’re just looking to make things happen out there,” Crosby said. ”Create offensively. Make sure we get our timing and we’re aware of each other out there on the ice.”

MORE PHT PENGUINS COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Penguins
Under Pressure: Jack Johnson

NHL, players take collaborative approach in bid to resume

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Collaboration or bust.

Given the gravity of the new coronavirus pandemic and the abrupt decision to place the NHL season on pause in March, it didn’t take commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Don Fehr long to realize they were going to have to work together if play was to resume any time soon.

Nearly four months to the day since the last puck dropped, the two sides put aside past differences to have a return-to-play plan in place, and the assurance of labor peace through September 2026 to go with it.

”When we got to March 12 and decided to take the pause, that began a period of perhaps unprecedented collaboration and problem solving,” Bettman said during a Zoom conference call with reporters Saturday, a day after the league and players ratified a 24-team expanded playoff, set to begin Aug. 1, and a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement.

”It was a recognition by both sides that we were being confronted with an incredibly difficult, a novel, unprecedented situation. I believed we would get to this point because it was the right thing to do for the game and for everybody involved in the game.”

Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association executive director, not only agreed with Bettman, but went out of his way to credit the owners for the approach.

”I was persuaded well before the end of March that not only was this different, but it was being approached in a fundamentally different way. I always thought we would find a way to reach an agreement,” Fehr said.

The bond established between the two was apparent during the 55-minute session, with Fehr agreeing with Bettman and then acknowledging how unusual that was by by saying: ”I think that indicates something about the approach that was taken in these talks.”

Training camps are set to open Monday, which also represents the deadline for players to determine whether to opt out without penalty. If all goes as planned, teams will depart for their two respective hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, on July 26 to open a two-month playoff leading to the awarding of the Stanley Cup.

Many uncertainties remain, with Bettman and Fehr unable to provide definitive answers.

While acknowledging the likelihood of players testing positive for COVID-19, deputy commissioner Bill Daly was unable to say how many players would have to do so for the league to postpone or cancel the playoffs altogether.

Though conference playoffs and Stanley Cup Final are scheduled to be held in Edmonton, a person with direct knowledge of the plans told The Associated Press the site might change if the pandemic spikes in Alberta’s capital. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an alternate plan that’s not been discussed publicly.

Bettman and Daly, who are based in New York, weren’t even sure if or when they could cross the border to personally attend games because those entering Canada are required to self-isolate for a 14-day period.

The only certainty is the NHL became North America’s latest professional sport to forge a path back to playing, but minus the public hiccups experienced by its counterparts.

Major League Baseball’s season was nearly scuttled before the two sides agreed to a 60-game format. Less than three weeks before NFL training camps are set to open, the league is experiencing push-back from its players on whether to play preseason games next month. Major League Soccer has had two teams already withdrawing from competition because of the number of players testing positive for the coronavirus.

And not only is hockey on the verge of returning, the CBA extension assures 12 straight years of labor peace, the NHL’s longest stretch since Bettman took over in 1993. During that time, play has been halted three times by lockouts, the last in 2012-13, when the season was shortened to 48 games.

”I think Don and I both recognize labor peace was something we couldn’t even quantify how important it was,” Bettman said. ”But we both knew that for the business of the game to come back strong, there was enough disruption going on in the world that we didn’t have to add to it.”

Fehr said the months-long talks to reach a solution were a matter of perseverance.

”This is a very bad analogy, but you have to sort of navigate the kayak in a storm until the storm’s over, and then make sure the kayak isn’t full of holes so that you can go on and sail it in calmer seas,” Fehr said in a separate interview with The AP. ”Or to put it another way there was never any pretense that this was business as usual.”

Owners benefit because they can generate much-needed revenue through sponsorships and advertising, even though games will be played in empty arenas.

Though players will likely lose a portion of their salaries for seasons to come to make up for 50-50 split of revenue, they benefit from a CBA that includes the possibility of returning to the Olympics, after the NHL opted out from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. The new labor agreement also addressed players’ demands to gain a post-career subsidy for health care.

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

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Roman Polak of the Stars and Mike Green of the Oilers are opting out of playing, and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will try to play after recovering from injury.

In the aftermath of a deal being struck to resume the NHL season, Aug. 1, Green, Polak and three other players joined Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic in 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. After a trade from Detroit, the defenseman played two games for Edmonton before injuring his right knee.

Boston’s Steven Kampfer, Montreal’s Karl Alzner and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi also decided to opt out. 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 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.