Jason Spezza

NHL not planning to quarantine players for training camps

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Jason Spezza‘s confidence in the NHL returning has not been shaken by word of 11 fellow players testing positive for the coronavirus.

Given his involvement in NHL Players’ Association talks, the veteran Toronto forward knew from doctors’ input there would be positive test results in hockey just as there have been in other sports as group workouts ramp up across North America.

Those very well may continue to happen with training camps scheduled to open July 10, yet deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed Thursday the league and NHLPA are not considering putting teams in quarantined ”bubbles” for those mandatory sessions. Instead, players are being instructed to stay home when not at the rink, with the hope that frequent testing and health protocols will prevent any outbreaks before, hopefully, games resume in two ”hub” cities in late July.

”I’m pretty confident that once we get into hub cities, we’ll be able to do a good job of keeping it out,” Spezza said. ”I think getting there is going to be the challenge, and that’s where it takes a little bit of discipline for us as players to make sure we don’t kind of derail the plans.”

The league and players are still working to finalize a return-to-play agreement that would entail a 24-team playoff to award the Stanley Cup. It’s understood that players, coaches and staff would be quarantined from the general public for the duration of the playoffs and tested regularly.

Until arriving in one of those cities as early as July 23 or 24, players and their families are still out in the real world and face the risk of exposure.

”You have a whole bunch of people in close proximity to each other for prolonged periods of time, they may be traveling together exposed to other individuals that you don’t know who they’ve been exposed to,” Atrium Health medical director of infection prevention Katie Passaretti said. ”Any time you’re bringing groups together and then sending them back out into the world, there’s potential for further spread if one of those individuals was asymptotically infected or early in the stages of symptomatic infection.”

The U.S. recorded 34,500 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, just shy of the peak of infections set in late April.

”There’s lots of people everywhere testing positive,” said Spezza, who’s in his 17th NHL season. ”Us as players, we realize there’s going to be some risk of a positive test, especially in the phases that we’re in right now.”

Voluntary workouts of up to six players on the ice at a time were able to begin June 8, with that limit increased to 12 this week amid stringent safety protocols. In other sports, Major League Baseball closed its training facilities in Florida and Arizona, and the NFLPA told its members to stop private workouts in light of rising coronavirus numbers in some places.

The Tampa Bay Lightning closed their facilities last week after three players and additional staff tested positive. The NHL announced 11 positives among more than 200 players tested.

”It’s definitely eye-opening to hear, but at the same time, looking back going into it, you certainly expect that to pop up,” Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk said. ”You see more and more cases popping up across the league and that’s to be expected, as well. But at the same time, it’s still a little nerve-wrecking.”

Two weeks away from the scheduled start of camps and less than a month from when games might begin, some players still have questions.

”Obviously health and safety is the biggest,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”Being able to come to a situation where you don’t have to worry about contracting COVID-19 is huge. To ‘bubble’ the players and feel safe in your work environment is going to be probably the most paramount.”

Players are expected to be tested daily once competition starts, and they will be isolated with each other. Even with frequent testing during camps, it seems to be incumbent on players, coaches, staff and those around them to be particularly vigilant away from hockey.

”As everything around us starts opening up, we almost have to tighten up because we’re going back to play,” Spezza said. ”We have to be probably a little more careful as we get closer to training camp here.”

One concern is for coaches and executives in the older age range that makes them more vulnerable to the virus. The Canadiens said 60-year-old coach Claude Julien intends on being behind the bench because ”he has full confidence in the league’s ability to set in place the security measures necessary to ensure the safety of it all.”

Training camp, when upwards of 30 players will be together, is the first test of those procedures.

”I think everybody’s doing the best possible job they can to put everyone in the best position to stay healthy, and that’s the No. 1 priority is health and safety of the players and everyone else involved,” Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray said. ”Nothing is going to be perfect.”

NHL Power Rankings: Qualifying Round storylines

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There’s been an excitement in the air since the NHL announced its Return to Play plans last week. Of course, there’s a big if to be added at the beginning of it all. As long as planning and testing goes well, the puck should drop later this summer to determine the 2020 Stanley Cup champion.

There’s still lots of work to do.

But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.

1. Non-playoff teams given second life

Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause. 

“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”

But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.

Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.

“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”

2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?

As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.

With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?

The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.

Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?

At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

3. The goalie battles

We touched on this Friday with the Rangers. Will Henrik Lundqvist get one last ride in New York or will David Quinn go with the impressive rookie, Shesterkin? Will Mike Sullivan allow training camp to determine if he goes with Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Is Mikko Koskinen the definitive choice in Edmonton over Mike Smith? Can Antti Raanta challenge Darcy Kuemper for the Coyotes’ No. 1 job?

Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.

A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.

4. Stars getting healthy

Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.

Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.

Jason Zucker #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal
Getty Images

5. Deadline pickups having an effect

The trade deadline seems like it arrived years ago. Let’s now all remember that Tyler Toffoli is a Canuck, Brady Skjei and Vincent Trocheck are Hurricanes, Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau are Penguins, J.G. Pageau is an Islander, Alex Galchenyuk is a Wild, and Andreas Athanasiou is an Oiler.

Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.

Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.

In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.

These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.

6. The swan songs

Justin Williams took a break after last season and rejoined the Hurricanes in January. Hanging up his skates for good after this season is something he spoke about in April. Who else could join him?

Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?

Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”

A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.

Perry, Spezza, and other NHL free agent forwards with uncertain futures

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When Corey Perry told the Dallas Stars website that “I know there’s more hockey left in me,” Perry was discussing being ready for play to resume. But what about next season, and possibly beyond?

Perry falls into a category of upcoming NHL free agents with uncertain futures. The reasoning is simple: they may or may not get to make the call about retirement. A lack of interest might simply force them to hang up their skates.

Let’s take a look at Perry and some of the most interesting cases of borderline players. To be clear, players most likely to decide for themselves (example: Joe Thornton) are fodder for different posts. This list also skates past players with expiring contracts who already essentially retired, such as David Clarkson and Johan Franzen.

When in doubt, I’ve also focused on NHL free agent forwards who are 30 or older.

This list focuses on forwards. Later this week, we’ll also tackle defensemen and goalies.

Perry and other forwards with uncertain free agent futures in the NHL

Corey Perry

The lasting image of Perry’s first (and possibly last) Stars season was his “walk of shame” after getting ejected during the 2020 Winter Classic.

Perry’s season got off to the wrong foot in a literal way, as he broke it before his first game in a Stars uniform. He never really got any traction from there, managing just five goals and 21 points over 57 games.

Perry’s possession stats were mediocre, and they’ve honestly been that way for a while. The difference is that his offense plummeted, with the drop-off being especially sharp these past two seasons. Combine that decline in offense with Perry being a 35+ contract, and there are a lot of hurdles.

But all it really takes is one team to consider him a low-risk option, much like the Stars did in 2019-20. It’s not that outrageous to give Perry a mulligan. If you want a nasty veteran with some scoring touch, you could talk yourself into a cheap, one-year deal for Perry.

While Perry’s production has been putrid lately, he generated 49 points in 2017-18, and 53 in 2016-17. Perry also suffered bad puck luck (6.5 shooting percentage) in 2019-20, so there’s another way teams can talk themselves into signing the 2011 Hart Trophy winner.

Jason Spezza

Once you accept that Spezza is no longer going to push 90 points, it’s pretty easy to embrace investing in the 36-year-old. No, 25 points in 58 games isn’t spectacular, but managing that many with an ice time of just 10:50 TOI per night is impressive.

Check Spezza’s historical isolated impact at Hockey Viz and you’ll notice that, as his offense has declined, Spezza’s become a responsible defensive presence.

Spezza viz, Perry and other NHL free agents
via Hockey Viz/Micah Blake McCurdy

Spezza also mostly took Mike Babcock’s Babcockery in stride, which should count for something. Spezza is a low-risk no-brainer.

Carl Soderberg

Carl Soderberg’s a little older than I realized, as he’ll turn 35 on Oct. 12. Some of his underlying stats are pretty underwhelming, so I wonder if his place in the league may involve ranking lower in the pecking order than he has with Arizona and Colorado in recent seasons?

Ryan Reaves

Honestly, Ryan Reaves seems like the type of player I’d expect to be teetering out of the league at 33. Teams want a menacing presence who can play a bit, though, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him continue to get pretty lucrative deals. And, really, Reaves checks out reasonably well in this RAPM comparison with Spezza at Evolving Hockey, too:

Reaves vs. Spezza, Perry and other NHL free agents
via Evolving Hockey

Other forwards

  • I assume Martin Hanzal will retire, being that he last played in 2018-19, and in just seven games. Then again, he’s merely 33, so maybe he’d give it another shot? Large, defensive-minded centers don’t grow on trees. At least, I have never been to such forest, and would prefer to get that image out of my head now, thank you.
  • Trevor Lewis is one of those supporting cast members from a championship team who garners a somewhat baffling level of loyalty. (See: many, many Detroit Red Wings.) It’s not that Lewis, 33, is terrible. It’s just that I’m not sure how much he moves the needle. His ice time plummeted by more than two minutes (14:01 to 11:54), too, so that’s not a great sign for Lewis.
  • NHL teams sure do love 35-year-old Nate Thompson. The Flyers gave up a fifth-rounder for him during the past trade deadline, and Montreal coughed up two picks for Thompson the year before. All for REASONS! So maybe “Nate Boucher” will remain in some demand?
  • I’m not certain about Patrick Maroon‘s health, but … can the guy catch a break? It would be sad if the 32-year-old spent another offseason twisting in the wind.
  • There’s a subcategory of “I’m surprised that person played so many games in the NHL this season.” Two of the biggest were Troy Brouwer (34, 13 games) and Chris Stewart (32, 16 games, first season in NHL since 2017-18). I’d say that they probably won’t land on teams in 2020-21 but … I’ve already been wrong about NHL free agent forwards before, and likely will be again.

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.

Rinne, other NHL veterans hope for final shot at Stanley Cup

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Goaltender Pekka Rinne scratched scoring a goal off his NHL bucket list this season. Winning the Stanley Cup?

That remains on the list with the season suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns that next season will be affected, too. Rinne, a three-time All-Star and former Vezina Trophy winner, keeps dreaming about winning his first Cup.

”I always dream about winning Stanley Cup, and I don’t mind talking about it publicly,” Rinne said Monday. ”And, yeah it is my goal, it is our goal. I’m still hopeful. I’m still positive that we (are) going to get back and back to playing and we have a chance to compete again.”

With each passing day, the end of Rinne’s career draws closer. The 38-year-old Finn already has lost his starting job in Nashville to young understudy Juuse Saros.

At least Rinne is under contract for another season. Veterans like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all are in the final year of their contracts and all 37 or older with a chance at their first Stanley Cup slipping away.

Marleau had been hoping for his first championship after being traded to Pittsburgh by San Jose at the trade deadline in February. Marleau has enjoyed the short amount of time that he had with the Penguins before the NHL stopped play.

”Everything’s been great with the organization,” said Marleau, who turns 41 in September. ”They’ve helped out every step of the way and looking forward to getting out of the house I’m sure like everybody else is and get back to normal and get out there and start playing again.”

Thornton, Marleau’s former teammate in San Jose, still is hoping to play another season with the Sharks at the bottom of the West right now. Playoff hopes also were already dim for Anaheim and Ottawa with Miller and Anderson, respectively, both turning 40 in the next three months.

Spezza turns 37 in June and had been hoping to lift his first Cup to celebrate.

Minnesota is a point out of the West’s second wild card with Wild captain Koivu now 37. He didn’t have an answer about his future for reporters earlier this month. He did acknowledge thinking about all his options.

”I’m in a boat like any other player that is trying to wait for the league to make a decision if we’re going to restart the season and when that would be,” Koivu said. ”And if not then obviously trying to figure out what to do with the future and then go from there.”

Rinne used the first couple weeks after the NHL stopped play March 12 to look at himself. The goalie who led Nashville to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final in 2017, then won the Vezina on his fourth time as a finalist in 2018 is now a backup.

Rinne is 18-14-4 as a starter this season, and he became only the 12th NHL goalie to score a goal Jan. 9 with an empty netter in Chicago from behind his own goal line. But Saros was in net for Nashville’s last six victories with Rinne 1-3-1 in his final five starts allowing 17 goals.

”I realized the fact that I haven’t had the strongest season so far,” Rinne said. ”But at the same time, I tried to use this time to my advantage.”

Nashville holds the second wild-card spot in the West and would be in the playoffs if the NHL decided to resume play by jumping straight into the postseason. So Rinne works out daily and works on his hand-eye coordination using juggling and having his girlfriend throw tennis balls at him to be ready for this season or get a head start on next season.

”For sure, right now we’re missing out,” Rinne said. ”But again everybody in the league, they’re in the same situation. And we’re dealing this, everybody’s dealing with it differently. But we all in it together. And hopefully, you know, hopefully soon, again, you know, we have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

Long-term outlook for Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leafs long-term outlook Tavares Marner Matthews Nylander Hyman
Getty Images
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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 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Confession time. When I first started scrolling through the Maple Leafs’ forwards at Cap Friendly, I cringed.

Maybe it’s only natural. When you realize that Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combine for more than $40M per year, it’s reasonable to feel bewildered for a second or two. That’s basically half of their salary cap.

Yet, if you’re going to invest a ton of money in any hockey area, go with star forwards. And while John Tavares awaits the aging curve at 29, Marner and Matthews are only 22, and Nylander’s merely 23.

While GM Kyle Dubas & Co. didn’t leave unscathed, you could say the Maple Leafs are out of the woods. Or … out of the most treacherous woods?

For a team that is so heavily invested in a few forwards, it’s interesting to see quite a bit of medium-term deals for supporting cast players.

You can’t pin that on Lou Lamoriello, either. Dubas retained Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen before hashing things out with Marner. He traded for a goalie with some term in Jack Campbell. Time will tell if it was wise to invest in an extension for Jake Muzzin, who’s already 31. Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl also received some interesting term.

Some significant “Who else will be a part of the core?” questions remain. Things could also change thanks to the cap uncertainty, not to mention the Seattle expansion draft. Still, a lot of the core is in place, and while it isn’t cheap, it’s quite impressive.

Long-term needs for Maple Leafs

Chalk it up to luck or coincidence, but the Maple Leafs don’t face too many big calls during an upcoming offseason thrown out of balance by COVID-19 fallout.

Further down the line, there are some key calls, though. Frederik Andersen, 30, needs a new contract after 2020-21, while Morgan Rielly, 26, awaits a big raise following 2021-22. The Maple Leafs need to find answers to those long-term (mid-term?) questions down the line.

Speaking of down the line, the Maple Leafs must hope that Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren develop into useful defensemen for them. Defense is a big problem for the Maple Leafs, and while (likely departing) Tyson Barrie disappointed, he also did so at a cheap clip of $2.75M. The Maple Leafs want to improve on defense, yet they don’t have a ton of cash to make such improvements, so it would be crucial to get the most out of two blueliners on entry-level contracts. Their respective developments seem pivotal.

Overall, the Maple Leafs need to squeeze every bit of value out of their robust analytics department.

That means finding useful, cheap players, like they did with Jason Spezza. They’ve burned significant draft capital in trades involving Muzzin and Patrick Marleau over the years, so they’ll need to unearth prospects through a mixture of luck and deft scouting.

Considering monetary limitations, they might also need to get used to saying goodbye to players they like, but don’t need. Would it really be wise to bring back Kyle Clifford, for instance?

Long-term strengths for Maple Leafs

Again, the Maple Leafs boast a formidable foundation of young talent thanks to their big three forwards (plus Tavares).

Frankly, their front office now appears to be a long-term strength, in my eyes. Rather than the mixed messages of old-school (Mike Babcock and Lamoriello) battling with Dubas, there’s now a unified viewpoint. Dubas has his analytics team, and he has his coach in Sheldon Keefe.

A more rigid team might panic with, say, Frederik Andersen. Maybe Dubas will make the right moves there, even if it comes down to going with Campbell and someone else instead?

It’s that kind of thinking that could really help Toronto sustain itself even with pricey top-end players. There’s already some promise, also, in seeing solid scouting. While placing 21st on Scott Wheeler’s Prospect Rankings (sub required) isn’t world-beating stuff, it’s not bad considering how many picks the Buds shipped off in trying to rise to that next level.

Of course, for Dubas & Co. to be a long-term strength, they need to remain in place for some time, and that might hinge on the Maple Leafs making short-term gains. Considering the teams in front of them in the Atlantic, that won’t be easy.

There’s a lot to like for Toronto … but is there enough? We’ll find out — eventually.

MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAFS:

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.