NHL: Players can start voluntary group workouts next week

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The NHL cleared the way Thursday for players to return to practice rinks next week and firmed up its playoff format even as a ninth player tested positive for the coronavirus.

After unveiling the final details of its 24-team plan if the season is able to resume this summer, the league said teams could reopen facilities and players could take part in limited, voluntary workouts beginning Monday. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.

Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under “phase 2,” which includes specific instructions on testing, mask-wearing and temperature checks. It’s another step closer to the ice after the league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.

That announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive. The team said the player is not in Pittsburgh, isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered from COVID-19.

Of the nine players who have tested positive, five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what would be 24 teams playing in two hub cities.

“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”

The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.

“We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. “We’ve told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we’re happy to abide by it.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

“Those games are going to be competitive,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The remaining 16 teams will play best-of-five series to set the final 16.

Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.

“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”

Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.

“Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best-of-seven … I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them,” Tavares said.

Islanders sign goalie Sorokin to $2M deal for next season

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The New York Islanders on Tuesday signed goaltender of the future Ilya Sorokin to a $2 million contract for next season.

The deal includes $1 million in salary and a $1 million bonus. A day earlier, the Islanders signed Sorokin to an entry-level deal for the remainder of this season even though he’s not eligible to play.

Sorokin, 24, is considered one of the top prospects at any position not currently in the NHL. A third-round pick of the Islanders in 2014, he was among the Kontinental Hockey League’s best goalies this past season with a 1.50 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.

Two other teams signed Russian prospects Monday who can’t compete in the resumption of this season. The Montreal Canadiens signed defenseman Alexander Romanov for three years, and the Minnesota Wild signed forward Kirill Kaprizov for two years.

All three players are burning a year by signing for this season, a way of getting to more lucrative contracts sooner in the future.

The Islanders are one of several teams going into the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoffs with a goaltending competition. Coach Barry Trotz said he’ll let it play out between Russian Semyon Varlamov and German Thomas Greiss to determine who might start Game 1 of the qualifying round against the Florida Panthers on Aug. 1.

While Varlamov is under contract for three more seasons — perhaps in later years to mentor Sorokin — Greiss is a pending free agent. Sorkin backed up for the gold medal-winning Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and showed his NHL potential over several KHL seasons and world championships.

Draisaitl, MacKinnon, Panarin are 2019-20 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers, Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche, and Artemi Panarin of the Rangers have been announced as the finalists for the 2019-20 Ted Lindsay Award, which is given “to the most outstanding player in the NHL.”

The is voted on by fellow members of the NHL Players’ Association. Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov won the award last season.

Draisaitl and Panarin are first-time finalists, while this is the second time that MacKinnon is up for the award. The winner will be announced at some point during the conference finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

The case for Leon Draisaitl: The 2019-20 Art Ross Trophy winner, Draisaitl led the NHL with 110 points and finished third in the league with 43 goals. He played every game for the Oilers this season and was first in points per game (1.55), assists (67), and power play points (44). He was second in power play goals (16) behind David Pastrnak and second in even strength points (66) behind Panarin. A win would mark the third time the Oilers have taken home the award in the last four seasons. Connor McDavid was voted the TLA winner in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The case for Nathan MacKinnon: After missing only one game for the Avalanche this season, MacKinnon finished fourth with 93 points and led his team in scoring by 43 points. He was also seventh in goals (35), third overall in even strength points 962), fourth in power play points (31), and fifth in points per game (1.35). The 2019-20 season was the third straight year he finished with at least 35 goals and 90 points. It was also the third consecutive season he finished with exactly 58 assists. He would become only the second player in franchise history to win the award following Joe Sakic in 2000-01.

The case for Artemi Panarin: The Bread Man’s first year on Broadway was nothing short of spectacular. He set career highs in goals (32), assists (63), and points (95), led the NHL in even strength points (71), and was third in points per game (1.38). Prolific in production, he recorded points streaks of 12 and 13 games this season. He would become the second Ranger to win the award joining Jaromir Jagr (2005-06).

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
• Wednesday, July 15: Jack Adams Award, Calder Trophy
• Thursday, July 16: Lady Byng Trophy, Masterton Trophy
• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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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.

Oilers remember Colby Cave as training camp opens

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As the Oilers skated for the first time together since the March 12 NHL pause, Colby Cave looked on from above.

With Rogers Place sporting some fresh ice, the image of the late Cave was on the scoreboard as the Oilers practiced Monday as training camps opened for the 24-team Return to Play.

Cave, 25, died April 11 after suffering a brain bleed. He was set to be one of the team’s Black Aces when play resumed.

“Colby was an unbelievable young man, great teammate. Obviously a friend to everybody in our locker room,” said Tippett. “He would be with us today if he hadn’t passed. He planned to be with our group. He’s with us in spirit.”

[Related: Cooper Marody honors late Colby Cave with tribute song]

The Oilers are preparing for their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Oilers, which begins Aug. 1. Cave played 44 games with the Oilers in the last two seasons and spent most of 2019-20 with AHL Bakersfield. He had many friends on the roster, and his teammates will use his memory as inspiration going forward.

“This is first time we’ve all been together in a big group since Colby passed,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “Those emotions are still fresh, and it makes it even more real now that we’re all together and he’s not able to join us. He’s going to be in our thoughts and in our hearts as we go forward and move through training camp and into the [playoffs], and hopefully, go on a deep run here.

“We’re going to play for Colby, and he’ll be with us throughout.”

MORE: Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Crawford, and more

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Toews on COVID-19; Olympic roster projections

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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.

Jonathan Toews on COVID-19: “Does anybody really know how and when people catch this thing? The best you can do is get good rest, eat healthy, take care of your body, do the little things that lower your chances. What else can you do? Sitting around and worrying about it is just going to drive you crazy. The NHL’s gone to great lengths to create a safe environment. It’s far from perfect, but everyone has their own beliefs in seeing where they stand with all this.” [Sun-Times]

• Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw, who last played Nov. 30 and has been out with concussion issues, said he will not return this season but plans to come back in 2020-21. [NBC Sports Chicago]

• Panthers assistant coach Mike Kitchen, 64, has opted out of the rest of this season. [TSN]

Alex Ovechkin‘s contract expires next summer. Is he thinking about an extension? “Not even talking, not even thinking about it because right now we have lots of stuff to do.” [NBC Sports Washington]

• Olympic Talk projects the 2022 Olympics rosters for Canada and the U.S.

• Can Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022? [Olympic Talk]

• How Edmonton won the bid to be one of the NHL’s two hub cities. [Edmonton Journal]

• Mikhail Grigoreko’s one-year, $1.2 million deal that was voided back in April was approved Monday. [Sportsnet]

• A flat cap will cause plenty of headache for Jim Benning and the Canucks. [Sportsnet]

• If Brock Boeser is indeed on the trading block, how aggressively should the Wild pursue the Canucks forward? [Hockey Wilderness]

• A pair of UMass Boston hockey players are going to inline skate from Boston to Michigan to raise money for the American Cancer Society. [WCVB]

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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.