The San Jose Sharks had started planning for next season long before the news became official Tuesday that they would be one of the seven teams left home if the NHL resumes its season.
A slow start, a rough December and an injury-plagued final stretch of the season left last season’s Western Conference runners up at the bottom of the conference standings.
”We didn’t get off to a good start. We were chasing our tail,” general manager Doug Wilson said Tuesday. ”October we were awful, November we were one of the best teams in the league record wise anyhow and December we were awful. That’s where the frustration really got elevated. We are capable of playing some good hockey. Were we a great team? No, we probably weren’t a complete team. But we knew we were better than we were playing, and that frustration, that’s OK. It’s now how we channel that, what our focus is, what we do this offseason.”
This marks just the second time in the past 16 seasons that the Sharks failed to make the postseason. They responded the last time by making the only run to the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history in 2015-16 before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.
Wilson is hopeful for a repeat even though this season’s team struggled as top players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns had down seasons, goalie Martin Jones struggled and young players like Kevin Labanc failed to develop as anticipated.
”We did not meet our expectations this year,” Wilson said. ”But I do know this, we’ve got some really good players that care a lot. That’s how I look at it. Every year is a different year, a different team. We do not take missing the playoffs lightly. We’re not a team that’s going to go into this long protracted rebuild.”
COACH THEM UP
The poor start led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer in December. Assistant Bob Boughner took over on interim basis and the team showed signs of playing with better structure under his leadership. Wilson said he hasn’t made a decision on Boughner’s status but praised the work he did.
”It’s a process that’s ongoing,” Wilson said. ”Very difficult to come in and coach a team halfway through the year. You don’t necessarily have all the ingredients and your staff that you want around you.”
The Sharks dealt with some bad injury look during the season with Karlsson, captain Logan Couture and star forward Tomas Hertl all missing significant time. Wilson said all three are healing well and should be able to be in top shape whenever next season starts. That will be especially helpful for Karlsson, who spent last summer recovering from a groin injury, contributing to the slow start this season.
”This is the one benefit that he’s going to have,” Wilson said. ”He’s going to have all the time now to get healthy and to get that elite level of fitness the great players have and that he’s been able to have in the past. This extra time for him will be very beneficial.”
One question for the Sharks before next season starts will be the status of Joe Thornton. The Sharks brought Thornton back this season on a one-year deal and he finished with seven goals and 24 assists in 70 games. His production increased as the season went on as he had 11 points in his final 17 games after just 20 in his first 53. Thornton has expressed interest in returning at age 41 for his 23rd year. Wilson said he is in frequent contact with Thornton and knows he cant wait to get back on the ice.
The Sharks have most of their key players other than Thornton under contract for next season. Depth forwards Melker Karlsson and Stefan Noesen are eligible to be unrestricted free agents, along with defenseman Tim Heed and backup goalie Aaron Dell. But with significant money tied up in Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on defense, as well as forwards Couture, Evander Kane and Timo Meier, the Sharks will have little flexibility unless they trade one of those high-priced stars.
The Sharks won’t have the benefit of a high draft pick following a down season because they traded their first-round pick to Ottawa before the 2018-19 season for Karlsson. San Jose did acquire Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in a deadline deal for forward Barclay Goodrow and also has two second-rounders. Those picks could be used either for prospects or packaged in deals for veterans who can contribute even quicker.
Whenever the NHL is able to finish out the 2019-20 season, the games will be played in two “hub” cities which will host each conference.
The league is still investigating the cities they’ll use, which will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.
“We’re going to go to the places that in terms of the logistics, the health issue I talked about, the testing issue I talked about, the governmental issues we talked about, we’re not hung up on east‑west,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman on a video conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “For TV scheduling it may be better if we’re in different time zones, but we’re going to go to the places that we think are the safest and make the most sense medically at the time.”
As the NHL revealed on Tuesday, 10 cities are in the mix.
• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC
The Canadian government currently has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the country. That could affect Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver’s chances to host.
“The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”
All of those markets, outside of LA, feature a team in the Return to Play plan. Bettman said that there is a chance a team could move to the other “hub” city if their location is one of the chosen two. For example, if Vegas and Columbus are selected, the Western Conference will play in Columbus and the Eastern Conference would play their games in Vegas.
But it’s never that easy. Logistics may require a team to play in its home city, but it won’t be as advantageous as it usually is.
“[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said. “They’ll be staying in the same conditions that everybody else is.”
What comes next is to move into Phase 2 next week with players holding on- and off-ice training in small groups at team facilities. That could include players from different teams who live in the same city.
“This is a little bit different dynamic,” said Daly, “so we felt like it was important at the request of the NHL Players’ Association to make it available, but it will come down to the individual club specifics as to whether they can really accommodate those players on any real basis.”
If all goes well Phase 3, teams entering formal training camps, will get under way in July. That could set up the 24-team return in August, perhaps?
• A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
• An overview of the Western Conference series
• Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
• Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at email@example.com.
• On the NHL’s Return to Play plan: “While the NHL has a plan to resume the season, it appears to be written on a cocktail napkin soaked in beer. These are confusing times, as it is. Trying to logistically plan a season that may or may not happen only adds to the confusion.” [National Post]
• Playing a full, 82-game 2020-21 schedule? Kicking off next season with the Winter Classic? It could happen. [Ottawa Citizen]
• A Q&A with NHLPA executive Donald Fehr on the Return to Play plan: “There are still things that have to be negotiated. We haven’t done the Phase 3 or Phase 4 protocols. There are some things about the [return-to-play] format that aren’t quite finished. There’s a lot to do, but that issue will certainly be one that will be raised. And I’m fairly confident that we’ll find a way to resolve it. Nobody wants to expose someone to unreasonable risks given the circumstances.” [ESPN]
• Peter DeBoer on his Golden Knights team: “It’s the most talented team I’ve had in my coaching career. It seems like a great combination of talent and character and leadership.” [NHL.com]
• On rethinking “success” at the NHL Draft. [1st Ohio Battery]
• Legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson is joining the Big Ten as a special advisor. [Detroit News]
• Brett Riley, who served as an assistant with Colgate last season, will be the first head coach of the new Long Island University men’s hockey program. [College Hockey News]
• Finally, uh oh…
Ready to defend myself in the Twittersphere. Let's have some fun! pic.twitter.com/zOf9v7Vk45
— Mike Milbury (@realmikemilbury) May 27, 2020
Rosy as the news might sound, Gary Bettman made no promises in announcing the NHL has the framework of a plan in place to return to the ice.
”We hope,” the commissioner said, ”that this is a step back toward normalcy.”
The league and its players overcame a significant hurdle Tuesday when Bettman formally unveiled a 24-team expanded playoff format in which games could start as early as late July in two yet-to-be-determined cities.
The plan – as with anything involving forming a timetable around the coronavirus pandemic — comes with no certainties.
”Obviously, there are lots of things to be done,” Bettman said, noting health and safety come first. ”But this marks a very important step along the journey that we’re undertaking.”
Under the plan, the top four teams in each conference have already qualified for the round of 16, and will play a round-robin tournament to determine seeding. The remaining eight teams in each conference will be seeded and take part in best-of-five series to determine the remaining playoff teams.
The NHL might be ahead of Major League Baseball and the NBA in terms of when and how it might return to action, but numerous questions remain before a puck is dropped in a meaningful game for the first time since hockey was put on pause in March.
”You have to do these in a sequence. You have to prepare for what we hope is going to be a consensus that we can and should play,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr told The Associated Press. ”This is but a meaningful start, I think. But it’s only a start.”
Timing is an issue. The NHL projects players might be allowed to begin returning for voluntary workouts next week.
Another concern is how long it might take players, including the dozens who have spent the past few months with their families overseas, to return to their home cities and whether they will have to spend two weeks self-quarantining upon their return. There might be a solution for that.
”We’ve reached an understanding with the Canadian government that players can cross the Canadian border as well both internationally from overseas but also from the United States so they can return to their home city without problem,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.
The next phase will feature a roughly three-week training camp starting no earlier than July 1. The league hopes all 24 teams are cleared to hold full practices based on local health regulations.
There are also outstanding questions on health and safety protocols, and determining which two cities will serve as hubs. Bettman announced the NHL has narrowed the list to 10: Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis/St. Paul in the U.S. and Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada.
Should all those issues be resolved, the NHL can then proceed with playing games.
On the bright side, the NHL still has time on its hands in the event of needing a contingency plans, with Bettman saying the 2020-21 season could start at late as January.
”If it has to slide more, then it’ll slide,” Bettman said, referring to the timetable. ”There’s a reason that we’re not giving you dates now because anybody who gives you a date is guessing, and we think we’d rather take a more holistic approach to doing this.”
Hockey is benefiting from what’s been an effective and collaborative approach conducted by its Return to Play committee, which features player and league representatives. The committee not only proposed the 24-team format, but also devised a list of protocols for teams to follow once players return to their facilities.
Teams will be responsible for testing players during workouts and training camp, with the league taking over when games begin.
Daly said players would be tested for COVID-19 daily and he added that medical advisers contend, for now, ”that one single positive test depending on the circumstance should not necessarily shut the whole operation down.”
”Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak, and that will affect our ability to continue playing,” Daly said. ”But a single positive test or isolated positive tests throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.
The decision to call off the 189 regular-season games that were not played ends the season for Buffalo, New Jersey, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Ottawa and Detroit.
Those seven teams will now prepare for one of potentially two draft lotteries to determine the top 15 selections. The lottery will be held June 26, with another scheduled later depending on which of the remaining eight teams qualify for the 16-team playoff.
Sabres co-owner and president Kim Pegula said the emphasis was placed on completing the season and ensuring the Stanley Cup will be awarded, even if it came at Buffalo’s expense. The Sabres extended their playoff drought to a ninth season, finishing just behind Montreal.
”We’re all trying to find that right chord, what’s best for the league,” Pegula told The AP. ”It’s one of those times when you’ve just got to look at it that way.”