It’s July 1, which means we’re used to waking up and expecting a ton of players changing teams with the opening of free agency. Instead, we’re wondering if training camps will open up next week and if we’ll see a completion to the 2019-20 NHL season later this summer.
While the league and the NHLPA have agreed to an extension on all expiring player contracts, those players currently signed who are due July 1 signing bonuses will get their money. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, over $300 million is expected be paid out to players on Wednesday following an agreement between the league and union. Though, with holidays in Canada and the U.S. this week it may take a few days to actually hit their bank accounts.
When teams would pay out signing bonuses was one of many details the NHL and NHLPA have been working on since the return-to-play plan was announced. With the goal to open full training camps by mid-July, both sides are hoping to announce an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Once an agreement is in place, the next step will be a full vote by the union and among the league’s Board of Governors before moving forward.
The NHL announced that 26 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since the Phase 2 process began on June 8.
To be more specific, the NHL split up the positive COVID-19 test results this way:
15 players involved in Phase 2 (skating in small groups at team facilities) tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL notes that at least 250 players reported to team facilities during Phase 2. During that process, the league administered at least 1,450 COVID-19 tests on those players.
Of course, there are also players who haven’t reported to team facilities. The NHL revealed that it is aware of 11 additional players who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 since June 8, the beginning of Phase 2. Note that players outside of Phase 2 aren’t subjected to the same level of oversight as those voluntarily reporting to teams.
The NHL added that all players who tested positive have self-isolated and are following CDC/Health Canada protocols.
Here’s the full NHL release on 26 players testing positive for COVID-19:
Pondering what’s next after 26 NHL players test positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2
The Athletic’s Joe Smith recently took a look at the Lightning resuming Phase 2 (sub required). That article conveys the self-quarantine process. Yet, at the same time, Smith also captures the lack of certainty amid this pandemic.
In other NHL return-to-play news, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the league is unlikely to make hub city announcements on Monday:
Update: There is not expected to be any official announcement today from NHL/NHLPA regarding locations of NHL Hub cities for 2019-20 RTP. https://t.co/47MHgoBwXw
Various reports indicate that the NHL hopes to transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3 (formal training camps) in mid-July. Earlier, it was indicated that the target date was July 10. That might change thanks to recent events, however. In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reported that the date could be moved by “three to five days, max.”
To get even more hopeful, the aim is for a full NHL return (Phase 4) in late July or early August. Obviously, that’s a work in progress. The NHL would need to clear hurdles to get there, especially if more players test positive for COVID-19.
Positive tests for COVID-19, hub city issues, and more NHL return stories:
Alexis Lafreniere, the expected top pick in the 2020 draft, will have to wait a little longer to find out which team he’ll be playing. We’ll learn about that in the Phase 2 drawing, which will involve the losers of the eight Qualifying Round matchups.
According to the NHL, that will take place between the Qualifying Round and the First Round of the Return to Play. That means one of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Canucks, Coyotes, Flames, Hurricanes, Islanders, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators, Rangers, or Wild will own the No. 1 overall pick. The eight teams that end up being eligible for the lottery will have an equal 12.5% chance at Lafreniere.
But what if the COVID-19 pandemic the derails the NHL’s plans? The lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.
In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the best possible landing spots for Lafreniere.
1. Penguins: Imagine the reaction if the team with the seventh-best points percentage during the regular season wins the No. 1 pick? The franchise selected in the top two four drafts in a row from 2003-06, setting them up for three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still at the height of their powers, which means adding a potential young, elite winger — to a cap spending team on a cheap, entry-level contract for three seasons — would allow them to retain “contender” status even longer. Now imagine a Lafreniere – Crosby – Jake Guentzel top line.
2. Canucks: Vancouver owns a roster that is full of young talent and ready to take that next step into “annual playoff team” world. How does a Lafreniere – Elias Pettersson – J.T. Miller / Brock Boeser top line feel to you?
3. Canadiens: The Habs have not selected a Quebec-born player with their first pick since Louie Leblanc in 2009. He played only 50 games in Montreal and has been out of hockey since 2016. Montreal was supposed to host the 2020 draft, meaning Lafreniere missed out on that emotional moment of hearing his name announced in front of friends and family. “Hometown kid gets picked by local team” would be one of the bigger storylines out of this draft.
4. Oilers: One complaint about the construction of the Edmonton lineup was Connor McDavid didn’t have enough help. That’s improved as Leon Draisaitl has shown us. Adding Lafreniere would be another step in strengthening the roster around McDavid and Draisaitl so they don’t have to do it all themselves.
5. Rangers: The retooling-on-the-fly is moving in the right direction for GM Jeff Gorton. The Artemi Panarin signing made an immediate impact and the goalie picture seems clear with Igor Shesterkin‘s emergence. Kaapo Kakko struggled in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have the pressure of turning around the team single-handedly. Same could be said for Lafreniere, who would enter a market trending upward and, like Kakko, be allowed time to grow.
6. Hurricanes: An important part of the maturation of young players is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. Rod Brind’Amour does that in Carolina, and that would make a fine place for a top pick to settle. The Hurricanes are already filled with an abundance of young talent. Winning the No. 1 pick and adding Lafreniere to that mix would make them even bigger “jerks.”
7. Blackhawks: They’re 23rd in points percentage, so giving Chicago the top pick would fit with the “The draft should help the bad teams” crowd. Kirby Dach was picked third last year and Adam Boqvist was added at No. 8 in 2018. The Blackhawks are transitioning on the fly without making it a full-on rebuild. Their veterans are aging and they own some painful cap hits, but there is young talent coming through the ranks that could form a future core.
8. Jets: In a different world, the Jets actually won the draft lottery. Had the NHL gone with the traditional 16-team playoff format using points percentage and not added eight more teams, then Winnipeg would be Lafreniere’s future home. “Team E” was the placeholder that won the lottery with a 2.5% chance. That spot would have been held by the Jets in that scenario. Sure would be nice to see Lafreniere in a top six among Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine, no?
10. Blue Jackets: After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in free agency, Columbus fought their way into playoff contention for most of the season. They also did it while seemingly losing players to injury every other day. If Jarmo Kekalainen could add a prize in Lafreniere to his prospect pool, it would go a long way to maintaining their momentum after a tough summer.
11. Coyotes: Should Taylor Hall decide to stay in Arizona, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Coyotes finding themselves firmly in playoff position next season. The organization has long possessed a strong prospect pipeline, and now there’s a good youth/veteran mix on the roster. A bounce-back season by Phil Kessel would only strengthen their case for a postseason berth.
Plus, we know what kind of lottery magic Hall possesses:
They talk about Gretzky’s 92 goals or Sittler’s 10 pts in one game as records that may never be broken. But winning 5 draft lotteries in your first 9 years in the league? In 2 different draft lottery eras, no less. That is a record that will stand forever.
12. Panthers: Here’s the question for Florida: Is it better for the organization to win their Qualifying Round matchup with the Islanders, thereby making the playoffs, something the organization stressed following Joel Quenneville’s hiring, or is the 12.5% shot at Lafreniere a better option? Do you take the excitement of a series win over an 87.5% chance of ending up picking No. 9-15? Remember, they would also be involved in the lottery if the Return to Play plan does not go off.
14. Islanders: Fortunately for the franchise, Lou Lamoriello lottery-protected the first-round pick he sent to Ottawa in the J.G. Paguea deal. If New York does get Lafreniere, that pick would transfer to 2021. If the Return to Play doesn’t happen, then the Senators would have a third first-rounder. A Lafreniere-Matt Barzal would be a fun duo to build around, and with Barry Trotz in charge the top pick will certainly be schooled in the ways of two-way hockey.
15. Predators: The cap picture is ugly, and while Nashville could use an elite prospect to help with their eventual turnaround, how long will that take? David Poile will not be getting any relief via a rising cap ceiling any time soon. The franchise remains in “win now” mode, but in a highly competitive division how much would Lafreniere help immediately?
16. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov will arrive in the NHL one day. Eventually. This summer? Maybe next season? Anyhoo, he’s currently the big fish in the franchise’s prospect pond. With eight current skaters 30 or older, the Wild are desperate to get younger, faster and skilled. A Kaprizov/Lafreniere tandem would help in Bill Guerin’s reshaping of the roster. But with some long, heavy cap hits between Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mats Zuccarello, a turnaround may take some time.
Multiple reports indicate that Vancouver is becoming a less likely hub city option for the NHL. Edmonton and Toronto now have better odds if the NHL opts to go with at least one Canadian hub city, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun.
In an ideal world, Vancouver would be close to an ideal choice. British Columbia ranks as one of the larger areas that’s been least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On face value, that makes Vancouver attractive. But the very caution that likely helped Vancouver/British Columbia limit the COVID-19 might make it a less desirable hub city option for the NHL.
The NHL is holding “more detailed conversations” with Edmonton and Toronto regarding their respective bids.
Chicago and Los Angeles are on “standby” if a Canadian hub city cannot fit the bill for the NHL.
It also sounds like Las Vegas remains a frontrunner to be one of the hub options for the NHL.
Let’s dig into why Vancouver reportedly experienced this setback.
Why NHL is reportedly less likely to go with Vancouver as a hub city
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman explained the “snag” for Vancouver as an NHL hub city on Wednesday. Friedman and Iain MacIntyre report that the stumbling block is over contingency plans if a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 within the hopeful “bubble” setup.
Global News BC’s Richard Zussman notes that Edmonton or Toronto might be more likely to give the NHL what they “want.” Basically, it would be easier to roll out a “show must go on” plan …
The other issue is whether players and staff can be part of the same hub quarantine. The NHL is also interested in Ontario's policy where someone who tests positive and is asymptomatic can still go to work. This would not be the case in BC. #bcpoli#canucks
Vancouver briefly climbed the ranks because it was willing to entertain the idea of a modified bubble. Dr. Bonnie Henry explained as much in a June 10 letter.
“I am now comfortable indicating my support for this initiative as long as a very strict modified team quarantine and testing protocol as outlined in the plans is follows,” Dr. Henry wrote, via Zussman.
At the moment, it sounds like the NHL wouldn’t meet the right protocols if someone tests positive.
That sure seemed like a quick turnaround, and some host cities might be more comfortable with that approach than others. It’s possible a city’s approach could be pivotal:
Politics was always going to enter into this story and that's still a lens here, but I will note that in BC it's been the health officials who have had the final call on our Covid approach, whereas the politicians have kept themselves in the frame in Ont/Alta https://t.co/3Qtd8wKXtS
This point has been hammered more than once, but a small window of time compresses these decisions.
Reports indicate that the NHL wants to make a hub city choice soon; some wondered if a call might even come this week. Other parts of the timeline remain vague, but the hope is to begin formal training camps (Phase 3) around July 10.
Making 12 teams apiece in two NHL hub city setups work sounds like a monumental challenge. It would be great if safety was the only consideration. Expediency and control appear to be important, too, and thus we’re seeing many twists and turns.
Positive tests for COVID-19, hub city issues, and more NHL return stories:
“The Bolts are back,” whether it’s a good idea or not. Five days after closing facilities upon learning that three players and multiple staff members tested positive for COVID-19, the Tampa Bay Lightning re-opened its two training facilities for Phase 2.
Considering other news, it’s an uncomfortable look.
The Lightning re-opened facilities on Wednesday. Just yesterday, Florida reported a troubling 3,200 new COVID-19 cases (and more than 3,000 deaths). Reports indicate that Wednesday’s news is even worse, with more than 5,000 new cases.
Lightning, other NHL teams trying to squeeze in training amid COVID-19
As awkward as it seems to come back this soon, and amid surging cases, it’s also true that the Lightning are trying to squeeze things into a small window. For the Lightning and the NHL, the overriding hope is that training camps (aka Phase 3) will begin on July 10. That doesn’t leave much room for error … or outbreaks.
That player points out that July 10 can also feel like a long time. After all, there would be many chances for other COVID-19 outbreaks, both among players and the general population.
“This just makes no sense to me,” The veteran player said, via The Athletic. “Right from the return-to-play format announcement and this Phase 2 thing that none of us have to be in, they’ve put the cart before the horse. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and they’re shocked there’s an outbreak? And it’s a long ways off to July 10, so you can’t tell me more and more guys won’t be testing positive as more and more guys start to get back to town.”
The Lightning and other NHL teams face plenty of obstacles before it can pull off this return to play. Despite this COVID-19 surge, the Lightning are forging ahead by opening their facilities back up — for now.