Push for the Playoffs: Blue Jackets enter ‘playoff mode’ in final month

Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Maybe getting away from Nationwide Arena will do the Columbus Blue Jackets some good? After a weekend that saw them drop games to the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets, the Blue Jackets hit the road to play in New Jersey and Pittsburgh. But more importantly, Tuesday night they’ll begin a stretch with six of seven games coming against opponents holding Eastern Conference playoff spots.

When general manager Jarmo Kekalainen went bold and all-in at the trade deadline, it upped the pressure on the season. Columbus was already on the playoff bubble and now with those moves it’s playoffs or bust. It’s a gamble, but it’s better than seeing another team be conservative late in the year.

“We’re kind of in playoff mode,” said head coach John Tortorella on Monday. “I think when coaches get into playoff mode, I always call it being with them. I think we’ve pushed the buttons and kicked and prodded and yelled and screamed and hugged during the regular season. But I think we’re in a situation right now … we’ve got to do this together.”

The pressure is on in Columbus, and Tortorella is preparing his players to deal with the pressure that will come with the final month of the season. Every game night there will be important points to be had, or dropped.

“You find out about yourself,” Tortorella said. “That’s what we all strive to do as coaches and athletes in the sporting world is to be thrust into those situations and see if you can sink or swim.”

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Lightning vs. Canadiens
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Penguins
Islanders vs. Hurricanes

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Flames vs. Wild
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Jets vs. Stars
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Hurricanes at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Senators at Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Panthers at Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Jets at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Wild at Predators, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream)
Rangers at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Red Wings at Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET
Ducks at Coyotes, 9 p.m. ET
Canadiens at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Lightning – 100 percent
Maple Leafs – 100 percent
Bruins – 100 percent
Islanders – 98.7 percent
Capitals – 97.1 percent
Penguins – 89.7 percent
Hurricanes – 88.3 percent
Canadiens – 65 percent
Blue Jackets – 53.8 percent
Flyers – 5.9 percent
Panthers – 0.8 percent
Sabres – 0.8 percent
Rangers – 0.1 percent
Devils – 0 percent
Red Wings – 0 percent
Senators – 0 percent

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Flames – 100 percent
Sharks – 100 percent
Jets – 100 percent
Predators – 99.6 percent
Golden Knights – 96.2 percent
Blues – 95.3 percent
Stars – 77.1 percent
Coyotes – 45.8 percent
Wild – 41.7 percent
Avalanche – 38.5 percent
Oilers – 3.7 percent
Canucks – 1.3 percent
Blackhawks – 0.9 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators – 18.5 percent
Red Wings – 13.5 percent
Kings – 11.5 percent
Devils – 9.5 percent
Ducks – 8.5 percent
Canucks – 7.5 percent
Blackhawks – 6.5 percent
Oilers – 6 percent
Rangers – 5 percent
Sabres – 3.5 percent
Avalanche – 3 percent
Panthers – 2.5 percent
Coyotes – 2 percent
Flyers – 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets – 1 percent**
(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)
(**CBJ’s 2019 lottery-protected first-round pick is owned by OTT. If top three, moves to 2020)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning – 106 points
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 94 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 92 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 84 points
Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 83 points
Leon Draisaitl, 83 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 45 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 40 goals
John Tavares, Maple Leafs – 37 goals
Jeff Skinner, Sabres – 36 goals
Joe Pavelski, Sharks – 36 goals

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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.

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.