What’s the biggest thing you’ll be keeping an eye on over these three weeks of training camp?
James O’Brien, NHL writer: To me, it boils down to: which teams are closest to “full-strength.” That’s a simple thought, but it gets more complicated when you factor in a lack of transparency in the NHL. “Unfit to play” is becoming the new “lower-body injury.” Does unfit to play mean injured, infected, both? Just a day off? Good luck getting many concrete answers from NHL teams. Or, if we do, does that mean every cagey answer equates to mistruths being told?
None of this is especially fun to follow, but it’s the elephant in the room. It might even just be the entire room, elephant, furniture, backwards talking and all.
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest thing to keep an eye on in the next three weeks is the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the NHL. I think there will be a few before the teams head into the two hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto and then it will just be a matter of controlling the infection rate among the rest of the player’s teammates. It will be more interesting once the players get to their bubble in their respective hub cities and if there are any cases after being in the bubble 14 days.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The foremost concern for me surrounds whether the 24 teams will be able to successfully transition from their home cities to the two bubbles, such that the Return to Play can proceed safely come August 1. Only time will tell there.
But in the meantime, one thing that’s got my interest early on in training camp is the young talent that, because of the hiatus and the expanded rosters, could be poised to make a big splash. Nick Robertson has made a strong impression early in Leafs camp; imagine if the 18-year-old, who scored 55 goals in junior this season, brought that offensive flair to Toronto’s lineup right away? Or if Peyton Krebs, one year after partially tearing his Achilles and falling in the draft because of it, could somehow earn playing time on the Cup-contending Vegas Golden Knights? The league is full of talented young stars, and we may get to see that list grow in this unique postseason environment.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I’m curious about how coaches facing goalie decisions will plan for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. If you’re Mike Sullivan, and you’re confident in both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray, do you think of your Game 1 starter as the one you’ll ride with or in a game-by-game situation? Since the Qualifiers are best-of-five, there’s very little room for error, so if you’re a team like the Penguins, Rangers, Flames, Golden Knights, among others, how short is the leash if your Game 1 starter struggles?
Which teams benefited the most from the four-month break?
James O’Brien, NHL writer: My first instinct was to pick the Penguins, the perennially-injured powerhouse. The health issue moves the goalposts constantly, but actually got me to thinking more broadly.
It’s not just teams that are getting healthier since the pandemic pause. It also might be helpful for familiarity.
The Golden Knights and Maple Leafs rank among teams that made midseason coaching changes, so all that time off and training camps could really help new coaches.
So now I lean toward the Penguins (if they can shake off their outbreak) and the Maple Leafs, who were both unhealthy and dealing with tumultuous times. Of course, both the Penguins and Maple Leafs could get bounced during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so we’ll see how much any of that matters.
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Any team that had a long-term injury will benefit from the break. Carolina got Dougie Hamilton back, while Pittsburgh added Jake Guentzel and Columbus welcomed Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand back. Tampa Bay should get Steven Stamkos back in time for the first round of the playoffs.
But the team benefiting the most are the Colorado Avalanche. At the time of the pause, Colorado had seven regulars out of the lineup including Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and Matt Calvert. While most likely would have returned in time for the playoffs in April, the Avs are healthy and are now considered one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’m in agreement with everyone else regarding teams that have had the opportunity to get healthy. So to offer another perspective, I’m going to off the board and say Florida. For starters, they faced an uphill battle to make the top eight in the East, so for a talented team with plenty of expectations, the new format obviously gave them a break. And perhaps the hiatus gave two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky the opportunity to move on from what had been a highly disappointing year. His GAA in the regular season was 3.23 – fourth-worst in the league. Bob is capable of shaving a full goal off that, but even with a more modest improvement, the Panthers would still become a much bigger threat. If he gets hot, watch out.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Blue Jackets were already going to be underdogs against the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers round. We know how much John Tortorella loves to play that card any time he can. Now, with a four-month break, Columbus is just about healthy, though they will miss Josh Anderson. Getting Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand back will help both sides of the ice, as will Cam Atkinson, who dealt with an ankle injury during the regular season.
Columbus-Toronto was already was one the series I was most looking forward to, and a healthy Blue Jackets roster will help move this matchup into the “potential upset” column.