It is July 13 and training camps open today for the 24 teams participating in the NHL’s Return to Play plan. On Friday, the league and NHLPA ratified the RTP protocols and a four-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. After a four-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic we got labor peace and hockey back (for now).
As players reunite to begin practicing ahead of the August 1 start date, there are plenty of storylines to ponder over these next few weeks. After months of speculation, we have some certainty about a few things, while we wait for other things to play out.
In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at some of the bigger storylines as NHL camps open.
1. Injuries, opt outs affecting rosters
NHL teams began releasing their camp rosters over the weekend. There have been a number of absences from those lists. Nolan Patrick (migraines) will not be with the Flyers; Mike Green, Travis Hamonic, Karl Alzner were among the first players to opt out ahead of Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline. The Canadiens and Max Domi (Type-1 diabetic) will wait 7-10 days before deciding if he should participate. What about Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko (Celiac disease)? Or Brian Boyle (Chronic myeloid leukemia)? With expanded rosters teams will be able to adjust, but certain absences could leave holes in lineups that may not be able to be filled.
Kakko is on the Rangers’ camp roster as of Monday. Could that change? “If the doctors and the world of science told us not to play him, he’s not playing. It’s that simple,” team president John Davidson said last month.
This also rolls into the NHL’s plan not to release information about if a player tests positive for COVID-19. That first time a player misses practice or a game, the questions will begin.
Meanwhile, the Penguins announced Monday that nine players will be sidelined from camp after potential secondary exposure “to an individual who had contact with a person that has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”
News of positive tests or players being held off the ice will be a regular occurrence. What will happen if a roster is ravaged by the virus, as we’ve seen in Major League Soccer and the NWSL?
[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]
2. Coaches, players with new teams getting extended practice time
For coaches like Dean Evason, Peter DeBoer, and John Hynes, and players like Ondrej Kase, J.G. Pageau, llya Kovalchuk, Tyler Toffoli, and Alec Martinez, they didn’t get a training camp with their new teams. These three weeks will allow the coaches the time to hammer home their systems and give the players the chance to gel with new teammates — some of whom they’ve only played with for a handful of games following the trade deadline.
“I love training camp,” Hynes said last month. “You can make a big difference as a coach in training camp. I think it’s how you plan it out and how organized you are, [and you can] hit the ground running. Players come in knowing the expectations, physically, mentally, how we want to practice… You have an opportunity to teach, install and condition, without games every other day. I’m really excited to get back with the group and build upon some things we liked, but also now we’ve got a chance to really iron out some things we want to be really good at.”
3. Crease decisions
Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner? Devan Dubnyk or Alex Stalock? Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros? Igor Shesterkin or Henrik Lundqvist? Having two capable goalies could prove to be vital in this kind of format, but one has to take over the starting role at the beginning. Teams will be using these next three weeks to answer the question of who starts Game 1. Given those teams in the Qualifiers will be playing best-of-five series, how long exactly will be the leash be for the starters if there are early struggles?
4. Benefit of the break for defending champs
The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover didn’t affect the Blues during the regular season. Despite losing Vladimir Tarasenko in October, they rolled through the Western Conference and finished with the second-highest points percentage in the NHL (.662) after playing 71 games. Now they get Tarasenko back, and will come off a four and a half month break instead of going right back into the playoff grind again.
That’s good for the legs and what lies ahead. Only two teams have done the back-to-back since 1998. It’s never easy to get through four rounds, but this would be a unique circumstance for a repeat.
“They’re hungry. They want to get back,” said head coach Craig Berube. “We’ve got good motivation, I believe, coming back and playing and trying to repeat. Our guys are in a pretty good spot now.”
Four Blues players and a coach did test positive for COVID-19, but there hasn’t been an indication how that will affect the team at the beginning of camp.
5. How ready will top seeds be for First Round?
As the Stanley Cup Qualifiers are going on, the top four seeds in each conference will play three games to determine where they’ll stand in the First Round. What kind of level will those eight teams play at knowing they’re just playing for seeding, which doesn’t include traditional home ice? If you’re Bruce Cassidy or Jared Bednar or Jon Cooper or Todd Reirden, you’re not worried about wins and losses; your concern is getting your players back up to speed and your goalies ready for when the playoffs begin.
“We’re kind of setting the tone for how things are going to be moving forward,” said Reirden. “We’ll do everything we can to prepare our players to be ready for that round robin game where we can affect our seeding, and then in addition to that, going into our first playoff series against whoever that may be.”
• Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
• Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.