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.
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.
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“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.”
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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