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Maple Leafs among Canadian teams looking to take next step

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Auston Matthews watched the NBA champion Raptors parade through the streets of Toronto and couldn’t help but wonder.

What if instead of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, it was him and his Maple Leafs teammates celebrating the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1967?

”I definitely get stuck thinking about stuff like that,” Matthews said. ”You kind of picture yourself in that situation.”

Matthews first wants to picture the Maple Leafs on a long playoff run after three consecutive first-round exits. For Toronto and all seven Canada-based NHL teams, this season is about taking the next step, whether it’s into Cup contender status, into the postseason or a long-term rebuild.

The Maple Leafs with Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander up front and a retooled blue line featuring former Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie on paper look like the best hope to end Canada’s Cup drought that dates to 1993. But they play in arguably hockey’s toughest division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and the improved Florida Panthers , so they can’t really be judged until they get into the playoffs and show what they can do.

”Obviously the Achilles heel has been that first round for us,” Matthews said. ”It’s tough to really measure a successful season without reaching that ultimate goal and accomplishing it. For us obviously it’s been frustrating, especially the last two years – the same team, same result. So for us just making sure that everybody’s really focused and dialed in and ready to kind of get over that hump.”

Toronto lost to Boston in Game 7 of the first round each of the past two seasons. The Bruins got to Game 7 of the Cup Final before losing to St. Louis.

”They were that close,” Matthews said. ”It’s always in the back of your mind kind of that ‘What could have been.”’

WESTERN POWERS

Out West, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames are each coming off disappointing first-round defeats and have high expectations of burying those memories and advancing further this spring.

”We never really found that level that we did two years ago when we made it to the conference finals, and we need to get back at that,” Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. ”We need to find that and we need to find it earlier. I’m excited for this year and I think the guys are, too.”

The Jets traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Rangers, lost Tyler Myers in free agency and are dealing with the possibility that Dustin Byfuglien could retire. The uncertain futures of unsigned restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor add to the uncertainty in Winnipeg.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Ehlers said.

MONTREAL’S HUMP

The Montreal Canadiens just want to get back to the playoffs after missing in two of the past three seasons. They haven’t won a round since 2015, and forward Max Domi can’t imagine what his first home playoff game will be like in a city starved for it.

”I watch videos all the time of people with their iPhones at a live Bell Centre Montreal Canadiens game in the playoffs and just visualizing how cool that would be,” Domi said. ”It’s a dream of mine.”

Carey Price, who in 2015 won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender, is the biggest reason to believe the Canadiens can overcome the odds and make the playoffs.

”He’s the best goalie in the world for a reason,” Domi said. ”It’s a major confidence boost, for sure. He’s outstanding.”

OIL SHORTAGE

The Edmonton Oilers have one playoff appearance in 13 years since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. They have a new general manager in Ken Holland, a new coach in Dave Tippett and new questions about captain Connor McDavid coming off a knee injury. Of course, the biggest question in Edmonton is if this once-proud franchise can put it all together and stop wasting McDavid’s prime.

”We all get frustrated at times,” center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. ”You’re kidding yourself if you say it doesn’t. We’ve got to find our way out of it. There’s no point dwelling on it, no point getting down about it. You’ve just got to push through and we’ve got to find a way to get out of it together.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Swedish sensation Elias Pettersson gives the Vancouver Canucks hope that they can return to prominence with a new wave of young talent. It’s still a process for Vancouver, which will need to build up some more talent before contending.

Defenseman Thomas Chabot‘s $64 million, eight-year extension is similarly good news for the Ottawa Senators that a rising star wants to stay there and be part of the solution. The Senators need a handful more players like Chabot before they can reach the playoffs again.

PHT Morning Skate: Four Blues players, one coach test positive for COVID-19; Future for Rask

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Blues players test positive for COVID-19, and other return-to-play issues for NHL teams

• Four Blues players and one coach tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the team to cancel practices late last week. It sounds like the Blues will attempt to resume activities on Monday. [According to various reporters, including Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

• Beyond trying to start things back up, what’s next? Lou Korac of NHL.com reports that the Blues players who tested positive for COVID-19 are likely to miss the beginning of formal training camps (aka “Phase 3”). [Korac on Twitter]

Last Monday, the NHL announced that 26 players (15 of at least 250 who participated in Phase 2; 11 who weren’t participating in activities and team facilities) tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 began on June 8. This bumps the player count to at least 30 during Phase 2.

• Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan recently said that assistant Jacques Martin is expected to be a full participant during the potential NHL return. Plenty of coaches are at a noteworthy age, considering the heightened risks for serious complications from COVID-19 for older people. At 67, you’d understand if Martin decided not to participate, or to scale back in some way. That’s not the case, at least according to Sullivan. [Pittsburgh Hockey Now]

Other hockey links

• Some early thoughts on the proposed changes to how the CBA works as the NHL and NHLPA work to hash out an extension. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• Jim Matheson believe that it is “big gulp” time for prospective NHL free agents. Go ahead and scratch off some 7-Eleven jokes, then read up on the predicament many are in. [Edmonton Journal]

• Last week, PHT evaluated how the Kings might use the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. While we discussed a few scenarios, the piece focused quite a bit on Quinton Byfield vs. Tim Stutzle. Mayor’s Manor goes deep on that comparison, too, and adds a wrinkle: assessing Lucas Raymond as the possible second pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, too. [Mayor’s Manor]

• Speaking of going deep, Joe Haggerty breaks down what the future might look like for Tuukka Rask. With retirement sounding unlikely any time soon, what happens after Rask’s contract expires following the 2020-21 season? The Bruins could extend Rask as soon as this summer, but there’s a lot of cap uncertainty going on right now. [NBC Sports Boston]

• As far as Finnish hockey has come, Aatu Raty has a chance to break new ground. Could he be the first Finnish player to go first overall? It’s a long way until the 2021 NHL Draft, but Mark Masters spoke with Raty about the possibility. [TSN]

• Did the David Clarkson contract set the stage for the Maple Leafs to turn things around? For all we know, it may have accelerated certain processes, such as hiring Brendan Shanahan, who cleaned house of many of the people who … well, thought that Clarkson contract was a good idea. [Leafs Nation]

• Kevin Kurz shares the fascinating story of Ned Colletti. “MLB GM to NHL scout” isn’t a common career path, so expect an uncommon story. [The Hockey News]

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.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games, with an additional deadline expected after ratification of the agreement.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.