Anton Stralman

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

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Monday, July 13 represented a big day in the NHL return-to-play plan, as formal training camps began — naturally there was plenty of news.

To little surprise, such training camp news also brought uncertainty. This post won’t hit on all 24 NHL teams involved in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but let’s take a look at some of the rumblings from around the league:

Blackhawks’ Crawford, other absences lead to speculation

At the moment, the NHL elects not to name players or teams while announcing positive COVID-19 tests.

The bright side of that is that players gain at least a modicum of privacy. The downside is that fans and others are left to speculate about the nature of absences. To some extent, this follows the NHL’s clear-as-mud transparency when it comes to injury updates already, only turned up to 11.

Rank Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford as one of the players people are speculating about during this first day of NHL training camps. If you’re looking for more from the Blackhawks on Crawford, you were largely out of luck.

“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”

Blackhawks fans are probably used to uncertainty regarding Crawford, being that his career was threatened by concussion issues. Such issues, and Chicago’s mediocre overall play, might have pushed Crawford’s strong work under the radar. During the last three months of the truncated season, Crawford’s save percentage didn’t sink below a splendid .927. For a team as porous defensively as the Blackhawks, they must hope that Crawford will eventually be fit to play — particularly after trading Robin Lehner.

It would be a sad way for Crawford to end his Blackhawks career, too, as he’s a pending UFA.

Now, other goalies sat out day one of NHL training camps, too. Marc-Andre Fleury joined Crawford with that distinction. But while the Blackhawks shared few Crawford details, the Golden Knights deemed MAF’s absence a maintenance day.

Though not a comprehensive list, here are a few other notable absences from day one of NHL training camps:

Noteworthy names attending NHL training camps on day one

Going over every single player who participated would be a fool’s errand. Consider a few names that stood out, though.

Assorted bits, including Gritty

Now, for some quick random bits.

Matt Niskanen said it right:

“The world is pretty bonkers right now,” Niskanen said, via Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nothing is normal … But as hockey players, we just want that (Cup) chance.”

Actually, (Niskanen’s … Flyers’ colleague?) Gritty also got it right:

The first one to the rink? Well, the name Gritty makes sense then, I guess.

If you’re looking for the best gesture of them all, it’s probably the Oilers’ tribute to Colby Cave.

Although, the Maple Leafs also made quite a statement by wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts as a group:

If news and other bits from day one of NHL training camps are any indication, there will be a lot of stories to sort through. At least some of them will involve Gritty, too, so that’s nice.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Report: NHLPA to vote on return to play, CBA extension, $83M salary cap

The entire membership of the NHLPA will vote on an NHL return-to-play plan, which could also include extending the CBA, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post.

CBA extension could involve flat cap of $83M for “at least three seasons”

A possible CBA extension could have wide-reaching implications. Brooks reports that there could be a flat $83M salary cap for “at least” three seasons. The upside for the NHLPA is significant, though. Such a setup would also mean a cap for escrow, an unpredictable element loathed by players.

Naturally, plenty is subject to change. Brooks points out that even the $83M salary cap could be tweaked. But it would be a huge decision if a flat cap was introduced. As Brooks notes, this move would mean that the salary cap would no longer be linked to a 50-50 split in revenue.

Earlier today, Rangers star Artemi Panarin released a candid statement. Along with wishing that the Rangers could train in the MSG area, Panarin railed on escrow:

It sounds like the CBA extension proposal might soothe some of that tension? Maybe?

Entire NHLPA voting on NHL return to play plan also key

It’s pretty noteworthy, too, that the entire membership of the NHLPA might vote on a return-to-play plan.

Previously, there were rumblings that a return-to-play vote would be limited to an NHLPA executive board. An anonymous veteran player recently expressed displeasure regarding that idea to Michael Russo and James Mirtle of The Athletic (sub required).

“Guys are not happy,” The veteran player said. “This is why we better have a full player vote and not just an executive board vote. But I’m not convinced (NHLPA executive director) Don (Fehr) is going to allow that because he knows there’s so many of us on the fence. That’s why I think the league was trying to be hush-hush on these positive tests.

“In my opinion, no way we play.”

Players haven’t just expressed their concerns about COVID-19 privately, either.

That goes beyond a role player with possible risk factors such as Anton Stralman. Canadiens goalie Carey Price expressed concerns about the process on Thursday.

Some believe that it’s not necessarily a slam dunk (tap-in goal?) that a majority of players would approve a return to play. An anonymous agent noted to Russo and Mirtle that playing in the setup wouldn’t even translate to a full paycheck for some players. That’s a lot of risk for little return.

However, if the NHLPA and NHL hammered out some pretty favorable concessions for both sides in that CBA extension? Now that might be something that could make plenty of sense for the players (and league).

Of course, with just about every part of this process, a lot is subject to change. As we’ve seen, there are twists and turns in merely determining the two NHL hub cities.

If this vote comes to pass, it would create some long-term clarity during these very unclear times.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and others provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” There are people who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers’ Stralman wonders if NHL’s return to play would be worth the risks

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As the NHL pushes for a return to play, it’s fair to ask: “Is it worth it?” Chances are, plenty of players are quietly wondering that. Credit to Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman for actually saying it, though.

Stralman provided refreshingly candid insight to The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) on Monday. It’s worth getting into Stralman’s specific risks, but also his wider views on the situation.

If you’re like me and you wonder about the risk-reward ratio of returning to play as COVID-19 uncertainty lingers, then you might risk injuring your neck nodding along with Stralman’s takes.

“I think you should be concerned,” Stralman told Smith. “There are so many ways to look at this thing. I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”

[Stralman’s Panthers would face the Islanders in the Qualifying Round. More on the 24-team setup here.]

Stralman among NHL players at greater risk during a possible return

Stralman, 33, faces greater risks considering his lengthy battle with bronchiectasis, a lung disease where airways are damaged, preventing sufferers from clearing mucus from their lungs. Smith notes that Stralman just got off medication for bronchiectasis last year; judging by this 2014 report from NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, Stralman needed pretty heavy-duty medication:

Dr. Dimango had Stralman start a course of treatment tailored for people with cystic fibrosis. It featured a dosage of antibiotics three times per week. Stralman doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, but the treatment has staved off his infections.

It indeed seems reasonable if Stralman worries about how his “body will react” if he contracted COVID-19. The Canadian Lung Association notes that, while people with lung diseases aren’t more likely to contract the virus, they are more likely to suffer from a more serious case if they do contract it.

Would Stralman be forced to return if he doesn’t feel safe? Gary Bettman allowed some wiggle room for players with underlying risks, but also said he expected able-bodied players to return to action. In a hockey culture where you’re expected to play through pain, would Stralman be comfortable sitting things out for what could be an extended period of time?

So, yeah, it’s understandable that Stralman is worried. And he’s almost certainly not alone, even if others are silent (or have even bigger issues on their minds).

Voicing concerns about wider risks

To be clear, Stralman didn’t merely express his personal concerns to Smith in an interview very much worth reading. Stralman voiced plenty of big-picture worries about how others will be involved.

Stralman wonders about not just players involved, but workers in buildings being exposed to extra risks. Would running two “hub cities” with 24 teams require medical resources being diverted from those who need it the most? The NHL’s said all the right things about avoiding that, yet it’s still fair to wonder if it might happen.

“I think the main thing is safety,” Stralman said. “And I don’t think we should be obliged to be prioritized over people that actually need it way more than we do. There are so many people in this world right now that are going through some really tough times. I think all hockey players and owners should consider themselves fairly lucky to be where they’re at.”

In hoping for a return to play, there’s been a focus on if the NHL can pull off. And, to be fair, even those questions aren’t easy to answer. Yet, above all else, should the NHL return, at least in the near future?

That’s a tough call, so it’s refreshing that Stralman is willing to ask such questions.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What is the Panthers’ long-term outlook?

Florida Panthers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Florida Panthers

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Everything about this team in the immediate future is going to be built around the forward duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

They are two of the best and most productive players in the league, while Barkov has developed into one of the NHL’s most complete two-way centers. Barkov is signed for two more seasons after this one, while Huberdeau is locked in for another three. They have matching salary cap hits of $5.9 million per season.

Beyond them, the core gets a little cloudier because all of their long-term investments come with some pretty significant risks.

Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is signed for another six seasons at a salary cap hit of $10 million per season. They are going to need him to be significantly better than he has been so far if there is any chance of him playing out the remainder of that deal in Florida.

In front of him they have invested heavily in their defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, and Mike Matheson all signed for at least the next two seasons, while Ekblad, Yandle, and Matheson go for at least the next three years. Ekblad and Matheson are both signed for the next five. They have a ton of money invested in that quartet, but they haven’t really received a great return on that investment at this point.

Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, two of their best forwards, are unsigned beyond this season and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If they can not re-sign one — or both — that would be a significant amount of offense going out the door.

Long-Term Needs

Even though the Panthers have made a huge long-term financial investment in their defense and goaltending, they are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league right now.

Ekblad and Yandle are a solid duo at the top, and maybe even a little underrated. Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 overall pick definitely raises the expectations around him, but he has been an extremely productive player offensively and shown improvement in his all-around game. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s a good player.

But once you get beyond that top duo there are a lot of flaws and question marks with the defense as a whole, and not a lot of immediate help on the horizon to help fix it. That is one of the things that made the in-season trade of Vincent Trocheck so confusing. It was a deal that did not need to be made, and they did not even use it to address their biggest flaw.

They could also be looking at a depth issue at forward if they can not get Hoffman and Dadonov re-signed.

Long-Term Strengths

The biggest strength for the Panthers is probably the simple fact they not only have two elite players in Barkov and Huberdeau, but that they have them both signed for multiple seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $11 million per season. They are exceptional bargains against the cap, they are both elite players, and they are both in the middle of their prime years in the NHL. Having that sort of situation at the top of the lineup should be a massive advantage for a front office to work with. Those are the hardest players to find (the elite, game-changers on offense) and they tend to cost the most money. The Panthers not only already have them in place, they have them for far less than they should ordinarily cost. That is a gift and a bonus you do not want to waste.

It also might seem weird saying this given how much Bobrovsky struggled in his debut season with the team, but they do seem to have a lot of goaltending options in the short-and long-term.

Even if Bobrovsky’s contract turns into a problem in a few years, he should be better than he was this season and at least give them a few seasons of high level play. Chris Driedger has also been a pleasant surprise in net this season and could settle in as a nice back-up option, while they also have one of the top goaltending prospects in the league in Spencer Knight after using a top-15 pick on him in the draft a year ago.

They also have one of the NHL’s best coaches in Joel Quenneville.

More:

• Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers
• Panthers’ surprises and disappointments

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.