Brendan Lemieux

Game On: NHL restart a small step toward return to normalcy

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TORONTO — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took a short break from watching the final few exhibition games Thursday to ponder the significance of awarding the Stanley Cup some two months from now – should all go as planned.

The magnitude of the task it took to simply reach the cusp of resuming play following a four-and-a-half month pause certainly suggests this year’s celebration has the potential of being a shared experience.

”That’s a very profound question, and I think the answer is extraordinary times present extraordinary challenges. And it takes an extraordinary group of people with an extraordinary effort to get the result you want,” Bettman told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

”If you look at the NHL family as a whole, starting with our fans, our players, our people at the league office and our club, the focus, the determination, the desire and the effort – assuming we’re able to get to that goal – will have been the ultimate collaboration,” he added. ”I believe whoever ultimately hoists the Stanley Cup will deserve it in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and probably still can’t.”

The first step towards closing the NHL’s most unique season begins Saturday, with the start of the expanded 24-team playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.

A nine-day slate of a potentially 52 games — depending on the results of the eight best-of-five series — will begin with the Carolina Hurricanes facing the New York Rangers at noon (Eastern) in Toronto. The top four teams in each conference, meanwhile, will play a round-robin series to determine seeding for the first round to begin Aug. 11.

Rust will certainly play a factor, given how the exhibition games over the past three days featured a mix of sloppy and surreal.

The crispness might take some time to develop after months with no action, and the ice conditions will need to be monitored in the summer heat – even in empty arenas – with as many as three games a day.

With players eager to hit opponents after weeks of practices and scrimmages, New York rivals Johnny Boychuk and Brendan Lemieux dropped the gloves for an old-time hockey tussle.

So much for self-isolation.

Keep in mind, too, what might spill over with teams quarantining in a ”bubble” in the same hotels – though staying on separate floors.

”The chance for weirdness is probably inevitable,” New York Islanders veteran Cal Clutterbuck said.

”I’m sure there’ll be a lot of head down, walk right by, maybe just give a quick nod if you run into somebody,” he added, before breaking into a laugh. ”I’m sure it’ll be civil but strange, although you never know.”

Little seems normal in the age of COVID-19.

Not the mostly empty streets of downtown Toronto, where the hustle and bustle of the business-suited crowd and tourists is down to a trickle.

The entrances of the Royal York Hotel, where some teams are staying, were completely fenced off and covered in black tarp featuring NHL and NHL playoff logo, with a notable security presence at each entry point.

Though hockey was being played inside Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, there was no hint of it outside the building.

Maple Leaf Square, usually packed with throngs of fans, was instead fenced off, and the benches used by a handful of NHL and arena staff enjoying a late lunch.

Even the Hockey Hall of Fame was essentially empty. It’s averaging about 100 visitors a day since it opened two weeks ago, as opposed to the usual 1,000.

”This is steady by comparison to a month ago,” an employee at the Hall of Fame’s gift store cracked, pointing to the two customers inside.

For Maple Leafs and Oilers players, there’s no such thing as home-ice advantage. They’ll be getting changed in the visitors’ locker room when called for and certainly won’t be sleeping in their own beds.

”I think the reality definitely set in yesterday,” Oilers goalie Mike Smith said Monday, a day after teams moved into their respective bubbles. ”You bring your luggage into a hotel room after you drive to the rink 10 minutes from your house.”

In Toronto, the city in early August would be buzzing if not for the coronavirus.

The long-standing Caribbean Carnival two-week long street fest was supposed to open this weekend. The Toronto Blue Jays are spending their entire season south of the border. And the Canadian National Exhibition, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, would be gearing up to open in a few weeks.

Chosen as one the NHL’s two hubs is a point of pride for Toronto Mayor John Tory, even if it means fans can’t attend.

”We consider ourselves over others – like it or not – to be the hockey capital of the world, and so this kind of reinforces that,” Tory said. And he doesn’t mind Edmonton being chosen to host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, even if it means the Maple Leafs win their first championship since 1967 in Alberta.

Tory has already made initial plans for the Cup celebration.

”If it needs to be a one-car parade with no spectators on Bay Street, we will have such a parade,” Tory said. ”So long as the one car has the Stanley Cup in it, I won’t care beyond that.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault hopes the return of hockey can represent one small step in a return to normalcy.

Vigneault has good reason to hope after spending part of the NHL break in his native Quebec. His first stop was visiting his parents at a senior care residence, where his 87-year-old mother is battling dementia.

Both came out on their second-floor balcony, from where he enjoyed a brief chat.

”It was a cold day in May, but it was a good day for my mom. She recognized me,” Vigneault said. ”This moment was no doubt the highlight of my quarantine.”

PHT Morning Skate: Fleury’s playoff streak; Boeser’s mission

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Marc-Andre Fleury is set to play in the playoffs for the 14th straight season. That streak is currently the longest active one of any athlete in the four major North America sports. [Sin Bin Vegas]

Bruce Cassidy on how he plans to use the Round Robin games to prepare the Bruins for the First Round. [National Post]

Max Domi, a Type 1 diabetic, on deciding to join the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers: “We’re learning more and more day by day, and I think to have that little buffer there to make sure that when I got here it was super safe — not that it wasn’t at the start — worked out great. Now that I’m here, it’s awesome, and I’m just worried about Game 1 against Pittsburgh and super excited to be part of the group now.” [Sportsnet]

• NHL coaches on reminding players not to break NHL bubble rules. [ESPN]

Brock Boeser entered summer training camp on a mission to finish off this season strong. [NHL.com]

• Why the Rangers could be the NHL’s next dynasty. [NY Post]

• How Brendan Lemieux‘s two-game suspension hurts the forward more than the Rangers. [Forever Blueshirts]

Connor McDavid on Leon Draisaitl‘s chances at both the Lindsay Award and Hart Trophy: “I think the players [in Pearson voting] will get it right with Leon. Probably should do both but I don’t have a lot of faith in the media [for Hart Trophy].” [Edmonton Journal]

• The voting for the 2019-20 Norris Trophy was a difficult choice. [The Hockey News]

• What makes Sean Couturier a great choice as a Selke Trophy finalist. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

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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.

NHL suspends Rangers’ Lemieux for two games

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NEW YORK — New York Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux has been suspended by the NHL for the first two games of the team’s preliminary-round series against Carolina because of an illegal check that injured Colorado forward Joonas Donskoi in March.

The league’s department of player safety announced the suspension Monday, four months after holding a hearing with Lemieux. The NHL waited until return to play guidelines were in place before making a ruling.

The suspension means Lemieux will miss the first two games of the Rangers’ best-of-five series against Carolina, which opens in Toronto on Aug. 1. He will be eligible to play in New York’s exhibition game against the New York Islanders on July 29.

Lemieux was suspended for a late and blindside hit on Donskoi in the final minutes of regulation of the Rangers 3-2 overtime loss at Colorado on March 11. Donskoi entered the Rangers zone and cut into the middle, where he got off a shot on net before being struck from the side by Lemieux.

Replays showed Lemieux led with his shoulder and caught Donskoi on the left side of the head, while the player was looking forward. Donskoi did not return due to a head injury, and would have likely missed several games had the season not been paused a day later because of the pandemic.

Lemieux received a two-minute penalty for interference.

NHL Training Camp News: Domi returns; Lemieux finally suspended

When the Canadiens hit the ice on Monday they were joined by Max Domi. The forward, who is a Type 1 diabetic, had not taken part in Phase 3 after it was decided they would take time to make a decision if he would participate.

Head coach Claude Julien said Domi is on board to play, but complications could arise given his situation.

“He’s back, but we know that anything can happen,” Julien said. “If there’s something that comes up that would put him at risk, he can leave again.

“For now, it was a good first day for him. He figured out quickly that the pace was pretty good for a team that’s only been practicing for a week. It was good to see him out there, and he seemed very upbeat and very encouraged by the fact that we have a group that’s healthy.”

Also at Habs camp today, goaltender Michael McNiven took a Shea Weber slap shot to the mask. Ouch.

Julien said McNiven suffered a cut on his face but did not have a headache or any other injury.

Lemieux finally suspended

It’s been 129 days since Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux had his hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety for interfering with the Sharks’ Joonas Donskoi. On Monday, he finally learned his fate as the league announced a two-game suspension.

Lemieux will be able to play in New York’s lone exhibition game on July 29, but will have to miss Games 1 and 2 of their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against Carolina.

Ferland inches closer to return

Concussions limited Micheal Ferland to only 14 games during the regular season. When the Canucks opened training camp opened last week the forward was deemed “unfit to play.”

But there Ferland was taking part in Sunday’s scrimmage with the team’s main group. A sign that he’s closer to returning.

“I’m feeling really good and looking forward to a couple of scrimmages and getting my cardio and game shape better,” he said before the game. “It’s obviously different in practice, but I’m ready to go. It’s just the stimulation. Seeing a bunch of bodies moving around and going at full speed. That’s what I need. “I need to re-wire my vestibular system and get out there with full pace and contact.”

Canucks head coach Travis Green is eager to see how Ferland progresses, leaving the door open for him to be part of the line up when they take on the Wild.

“If he’s ready to go, it’s another body we have to take into consideration,” Green said. “We’re going to have to make some hard decisions. The next couple of weeks are going to be important for a lot of guys, It’s no secret we signed [Ferland] for these type of games when things get heated. His physical presence is well known.”

Crosby remains out for Penguins

The Penguins captain was again absent on Monday as the team held an intrasquad scrimmage. Head coach Mike Sullivan gave the usual “unable to comment” answer when asked about Crosby’s status.

Meanwhile, the nine players who were held out at the beginning of training camp were cleared to join the team for Phase 3. Those players had been sidelined after possible secondary exposure to a person who had contact with a COVID-19 positive individual.

“We chose to give them an opportunity to get a couple of days of skating amongst themselves, first and foremost, before they rejoin the group,” Sullivan said. “We thought it made the most sense to give them a couple of days of an opportunity to skate and get their legs underneath them.”

Coaching in empty arenas

One interesting thing about playing hockey in rinks with no fans is the communication between players, and between players and coaches. A coach shouting directions to his team will likely be heard by everyone, as opposed to a normal situation where maybe it’s heard by those closest to the bench.

How does one adjust to that new kind of setting?

“There aren’t that many secrets,” said Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer. “Everyone’s got four guys on the bench and usually one guy on the other bench is watching your bench anyway. We’ll have to get creative with some of the stuff we’re trying to put in at different points.”

Brind’Amour using camp to “sharpen the blade”

As the Hurricanes continue preparing for the Rangers, there’s plenty of work to do after a four month break.

“I’d like to get sharp,” said head coach Brind’Amour. “I think we’ve covered a lot of stuff but it’s the sharpness. I think we’ve got to sharpen the blade.”

One area bolstered due to all the time off has been the blue line. Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen are healthy and Brady Skjei is getting more time to fit in following the February trade.

“We have a great, deep D corps right now,” said defenseman Jaccob Slavin via the News and Observer. “Through the playoffs, anything can happen and you see injuries happen and you see some guys get hot and some guys get cold. To have eight guys is going to be extremely helpful. It’s a deep corps and anybody can step into almost any role and play that.”

Anderson on ice

Josh Anderson was a surprise face at Blue Jackets practice on Sunday. The forward had shoulder surgery in March and still needs to be cleared for contact.

If Anderson can return at some point during the Stanley Cup Qualifier series against Toronto — or later on if they advance — that will be a big boost to their group up front.

“Although the break, no one really wanted this to happen, it certainly helped this team getting guys healthy,” head coach John Tortorella said. “We’re excited about that opportunity to play with a full team.”

MORE:
Two COVID-19 positive tests during  first week of NHL camps
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule
Teams hit hardest by flat $81.5M salary cap

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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.

NHL Power Rankings: Off-season buyout candidates

Monday would have marked the latest day that the NHL’s buyout period would open. Per the CBA, the window begins 48 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded or “the later of June 15.”

Well, since this season is like no other, we won’t be seeing Commissioner Gary Bettman handing out the Cup until the fall — if that even happens at all.

The financial implications of the COVID-19 shutdown will have a major affect on the NHL’s salary cap going forward. Before the pause, it was believed that the 2020-21 cap ceiling would rise to between $84-$88.2 million. Now? It may remain at $81.5 million, squeezing some teams who have money committed and more extensions to give out.

That will cause plenty of teams to get creative in trying to get under the ceiling and be able to ice a competitive roster. Compliance buyouts have been discussed but owners are reportedly against them. While keeping the compliance buyouts costs off your books may not be an option once the NHL’s regular business resumes, traditional buyouts will still remain a tool for teams to ease the pressure on their salary cap picture.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at five players who would make for prime buyout candidates this off-season.

1. Karl Alzner, Canadiens: It has been not a fun ride for Alzner in Montreal since signing a five-year, $23.125M deal in 2017. Since cashing in during free agency, the 31-year-old defenseman has played 95 games over three seasons with the Canadiens. He’s played nearly as many (87) with their AHL affiliate in the last two seasons. Alzner has two years left on a contract that carries a $4.625M cap hit, which includes a $1.5M signing bonus due this off-season.

A buyout would put a heavy hit on the Canadiens’ cap for next season — $3,958,333M — but for 2021-22 that would go down to $1,958,333M and then $833,333 in the final two years. Montreal is already at $63M committed for next season and that doesn’t include extensions for restricted free agents Max Domi and Victor Mete.

2. David Backes, Ducks: The 36-year-old forward was part of that 2016 free agent class of forgettable contracts that featured the likes of Frans Nielsen, Milan Lucic, Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, and Troy Brouwer. Backes’ production and ice time diminished over his four seasons in Boston as he battled through injury and an inability to find a consistent spot in the lineup. He moved on in February in a deal that sent Ondrej Kase to the Bruins.

Anaheim is attempting to trend towards youth, and while a Backes buyout won’t free up a large amount of cap room ($3M in 2020-21, $750K in 2021-22), the move would open up a roster spot and ice time for one of their younger players. It would also help a team that is currently tied to nearly $76M in cap space for next season.

3. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers: The emergence of Igor Shesterkin has put Lundqvist’s future in New York in doubt. The 38-year-old netminder has one year remaining on his deal, which carries a pricey $8.5M cap hit. Considering the Rangers are in a transition phase and looking to get younger, getting out from Hank’s number would assist long-term in easing cap pain and helping continue to build for the future.

The Rangers spent big last summer, bringing in Jacob Trouba and Artemi Panarin. That’s put them with a little over $67M committed for next season. Due for extensions are RFAs Brendan Lemieux, Tony DeAngelo, Ryan Strome, and pending unrestricted free agent Jesper Fast. One more RFA who’s owed a new deal is goaltender and long-time piece of trade bait Alexandar Georgiev.

Buying out Lundqvist would mean $5.5M on the Rangers’ books next season, plus Shesterkin’s $925K and either a few million for Georgiev to be part of the picture or a cheap, veteran backup. New York’s cap picture in 2021-22 would see Lundqvist’s buyout hit drop to $1.5M.

Before any move happens with Lundqvist he has to agree to waive his no-move clause. GM Jeff Gorton could always seek a trade, but the goalie’s cap hit would make that difficult.

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4. Kyle Turris, Predators: Nashville has $72M committed for 2020-21 and it’s clear Turris’ place in their lineup has diminished. He’s been a healthy scratch at times and still has a $4M cap hit with him for the next four seasons. A buy out would put $2M on the Predators’ cap picture through 2027-28.

In a normal off-season there would always be the possibly of David Poile looking to dump Turris’ contract to a team looking to get above the cap floor. But that will likely not be an option for teams looking to unload money in a tight-cap world.

5. Loui Eriksson, Canucks: Part of that rich 2016 free agent class, Eriksson has not been able to recapture the scoring touch that saw him net over 25 goals four straight seasons in Dallas and hit 30 in his final year with the Bruins. In 245 games with the Canucks he’s scored only 38 times. If compliance buyouts were a thing, he’d be a no-brainer, but a regular buyout? That decision would be a tough one for GM Jim Benning.

Eriksson has two years left with a $6M cap hit per season. The Canucks would be stuck with $5,666,667M and $3,666,667M on their cap the first two seasons post-buyout before a more palatable $666,667 in the final two years. Right now they have almost $64M tied up for next season and have UFAs and RFAs to decide on like Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Jake Virtanen, Adam Gaudette, Chris Tanev, and Troy Stetcher.

As Benning navigates this off-season for his transitioning Canucks, he’ll more certainly be keeping an eye on the summer of 2022. That off-season is when Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes can become RFAs. Cap room will be needed to re-sign those two cornerstone pieces.

All salary cap data via the wonderful CapFriendly

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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.