NHL teams ready to navigate unique 2020-21 season

Sean Couturier didn’t mind the NHL bubble experience over the summer. The Flyers were set up in a Toronto hotel for six weeks, and while that kind of living got old fast, they were playing playoff hockey. For the 2020-21 season, the forward is eager to play home games at Wells Fargo Arena and get to spend time with his wife Laurence and newborn daughter Ella.

That will be one of the big advantages for players this season. After 24 teams spent time in Toronto or Edmonton hotels as part of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there will now be a bit or normalcy as they grind through the 56-game schedule.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, protocols remain in place to keep players and staff healthy. In-season outbreaks within teams has occurred in every sport since March. Just last week the NHL announced the Stars would not begin their season until Jan. 19 at the earliest after six players and two staffers tested positive. The league reported zero positives out of 33,174 tests given during the Return to Play. But now with games at home arenas and players not holed up in bubbles, every precaution will be taken.

“As far as the surroundings, it’s definitely much different,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “Making sure you have masks and are socially distancing. There’s a lot of rules, a lot of regulations and a lot of things that we have to be aware of here just making sure everyone stays safe and healthy.”

There will be no player carpools, no roommates on the road and no group outings to restaurants or bars. The NHL will require to reserve two extra hotel rooms for away games in case someone tests positive. Once games begin, the NHL will reveal players who test positive. Coaches must wear masks on the bench.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST/NORTH/WEST/CENTRAL]

Violating any protocols could result in loss of draft picks, significant fines, or even forfeiture of games.

“This will be really important how the team handles the protocol, and the team that can manage to remain the healthiest is going to have a competitive advantage perhaps over those that have a tougher time, while recognizing that some of this is chance,” said Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon.

“Guys are going to have to be extremely disciplined,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “We’re seeing what can happen in the NFL, MLB, the NBA in terms of one guy kind of breaking the rules and other guys have to quarantine or not be able to play. We realize the magnitude of that. It’s going to be difficult, but the NHL, our teams have done a great job of putting all these different protocols in place and it’s up to us as players to follow them. It’s such a short year that you can’t really afford to have any mishaps and guys be out of the lineup because of COVID. I think we realize that and we’re just looking forward to playing some hockey here again.”

NHL Realignment changes

There will be the challenge of following COVID-19 protocols and then there will also be the challenge of the 56-game, intra-divisional schedule for the East, West, Central, North divisions.

“It’s an interesting division because just about anyone can win,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid said of the all-Canadian North Division. “I’m looking forward to it. I think the all-Canadian division is exciting. You look at some of the rivalries, some of the matchups, it’s a pretty exciting division.”

A schedule with 26 fewer games and playing only against teams in your division will put an emphasis on a strong start and more pressure on avoiding slumps.

[NHL PREDICTIONS: NHL Awards, first coach fired, free agent busts]

“We’re looking at a schedule where you can’t spend too much time on what just happened, but what’s going to happen next,” said new Devils head coach Lindy Ruff. “So if we lose a game we’ve got to move on, be ready for the next game. And we really have to enjoy where we’re at. Whether that’s a practice day, whether it’s the game the next night, let’s enjoy it and move on.”

“It’s going to be a sprint,” McCrimmon said. “We’re effectively beginning in the second half of the season right now, in a lot of respects, so there’s going to be a lot of hockey. It’s important to be ready, be prepared, and that’s what training camp will do for our team.”

Dealing with the time off

The seven teams that did not participate in the NHL Return to Play will have gone nine months without a game. Players were forced to adjust to the extra time in the off-season and adjust their training schedules. At first they had to sit and wait to see if the season would resume, then learned that the expanded playoff picture would not include them. Once the Stanley Cup was handed out in early October, there was even more waiting to see when the 2020-21 season would begin.

It wasn’t easy for some.

“It was one of the hardest years of my life, and then you had to sit at home for 10 months and think about it,” said Dylan Larkin, whose Red Wings last played March 10. “It definitely made it worse that we couldn’t have a short summer and work as hard as possible, then come back in September. But it gave us extra time to regroup and put in extra work, and hopefully come back and not be in that position again. For me, and in speaking with a lot of guys that were in town, let’s put the work in, let’s make sure what happened last year doesn’t happen again on our watch.”

[NHL Power Rankings: Contenders and pretenders for 2020-21 NHL season]

The extra time off was welcomed by Drew Doughty, however. The veteran Kings defenseman was one of a number of players who took care of nagging injuries through rest or, like in Brad Marchand’s case, surgery.

“You’re always playing with [injuries] and things are always nagging at you,” said Doughty. “Now, I finally had however many months off and my body is ready. I was able to actually lift weights, for real, and get heavy, get much stronger, when in the past it was all maintenance stuff. It was a blessing in disguise for me personally, and I think for our entire team, we’re all healthy again, we’re all more than ready to go for this season, we all prepared so hard on and off the ice. I took advantage of that time, that’s for sure.”

One goal in mind

The 30 teams that fell short of the 2020 Stanley Cup title had plenty of time to think about how to improve for 2021. One of the contenders for this season is the Avalanche, who fell in seven games to the Stars in the Second Round. They feel as if their time is now and chances to win a championship should not be taken for granted.

“You don’t have many chances to win,” said Nathan MacKinnon. “I thought last year there was a chance for us to win, and this is another one. Two out of eight seasons for me there was a huge opportunity. We need to do everything in our power not to waste it, to take advantage of this special group we have. We need to get the job done eventually.”

Opening night coverage begins with a special edition of NHL Live at 5:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN, leading into coverage of Penguins-Flyers. Kathryn Tappen anchors studio coverage throughout the evening with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp as well as NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

NBCSN LIVESTREAM: Penguins vs. Flyers – coverage begins at 5:15 p.m. ET

NBCSN LIVESTREAM: Blackhawks vs. Lightning – coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET

NBCSN LIVESTREAM: Blues vs. Avalanche – coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET

————

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.

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    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

    “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.