Kris Letang

Aye Captains: Crosby, McDavid provide Penguins, Oilers spark

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TORONTO — The C’s have it: Crosby and Connor, that is.

It didn’t take long for the two captains – Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid – to make their presence felt three days into the NHL’s expanded playoffs.

With each of their teams facing 1-0 deficits, and both to their respective conference’s 12th- and last-seeded opponents no less, Crosby and McDavid provided much-needed sparks to even their best-of-five preliminary round elimination series, which resume Wednesday.

First, it was Crosby giving the Penguins a lift by beating Carey Price on a partial break to open the scoring in a 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto on Monday night.

A few hours later in the league’s other playoff hub city, Edmonton, Alberta, McDavid put on an eye-popping display – even by his standards – with his first three-goal playoff performance in a 6-3 win over Chicago.

”I’ve seen it for years with Sidney Crosby. I mean, he dictates the work ethic and pace of the game. Last night Connor was the guy to do that for us,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said Tuesday.

”Connor’s not a big ‘Rah-rah’ guy, but he inspires players by how he plays,” he added. ”And last night, he certainly led the way for us, and the rest of our team followed suit.”

In Sid, the Penguins trust, veteran defenseman Kris Letang said.

”When Sid is leading your team, you know you’re in good hands,” Letang said. ”If it was not the case, right now we would be in trouble.”

The Penguins and the Oilers aren’t out of trouble just yet, given how only 15 of 83 NHL teams which lost Game 1 of a best-of-five series have gone on to advance.

Both teams are back in prime-time, with the Penguins facing Montreal (8 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), and Edmonton facing Chicago (10:30, NBCSN), while breathing just a little easier.

”He comes out and he’s flying like that the first couple of shifts, you want to follow right along,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said of McDavid. ”We know he can do that at any given moment. And for him to do that in a huge game like last night, it raises your energy level.”

NHL: Players can start voluntary group workouts next week

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The NHL cleared the way Thursday for players to return to practice rinks next week and firmed up its playoff format even as a ninth player tested positive for the coronavirus.

After unveiling the final details of its 24-team plan if the season is able to resume this summer, the league said teams could reopen facilities and players could take part in limited, voluntary workouts beginning Monday. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.

Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under “phase 2,” which includes specific instructions on testing, mask-wearing and temperature checks. It’s another step closer to the ice after the league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.

That announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive. The team said the player is not in Pittsburgh, isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered from COVID-19.

Of the nine players who have tested positive, five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what would be 24 teams playing in two hub cities.

“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”

The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.

“We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. “We’ve told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we’re happy to abide by it.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

“Those games are going to be competitive,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The remaining 16 teams will play best-of-five series to set the final 16.

Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.

“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”

Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.

“Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best-of-seven … I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them,” Tavares said.

NHL post-quarantine: Recapturing team chemistry a challenge

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Claude Giroux’s Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL back when hockey was still being played.

That was more than two months ago and their next game could be two more months away. He can’t predict how things might go if the season resumes.

“I don’t know,” Giroux said. “Right now, everything’s unknown.”

Among the unknowns about the NHL returning amid the coronavirus pandemic is what the on-ice product might look like. In a team sport that demands rhythm and chemistry, players will have to quickly adapt after so much time apart to recapture what it takes to jump right into the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.

“We want to see great hockey played,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “It’s not an exact science. It’s something we’ve never dealt with before, and we want to make the best and most conscious decision we possibly can to obviously make sure not only guys stay safe, but that the quality of hockey is extremely high.”

Unlike basketball, where one player can dominate a game and carry a team, hockey is predicated on players being in sync, knowing where teammates are — and will be going next — for tape-to-tape passes. Timing as a unit is an essential ingredient to success, and it’s that timing that could be missing early because of so much time off the ice.

With the exception of a handful of players who were rehabbing injuries, living in Sweden or somehow able to find an open rink, most haven’t skated since the season was halted in mid-March. Recapturing that skating stride and building back up to avoid injuries will be a big part of voluntary workouts before the anticipated start of training camps in July.

Some players have expressed concerns about their individual game skills, like Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine expecting himself to be “terrible” after so much time off. Many goaltenders don’t even have their gear with them, and getting back into a groove will take some time.

Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang thinks informal workouts limited to six players on the ice at a given time should be about all that and building up conditioning levels. He sees training camp as the time for coaches and players to do some team rebuilding.

“The skating and everything comes back pretty quick,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “It’s the team mindset, the system play again, where you need to be — that feel. That’s the only stuff you can really get when you’re doing the reps over and over and over again.”

Knowing full well he won’t have a month to work with players before games resume, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett dug up his notes from the abbreviated training camp he oversaw with the Coyotes going into the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

“It’s different because you know the players already,” Tippett said. “It’ll be a little bit like the start of a season where you’ve got to get up and going pretty quick.”

Absent the usual drills to practice rushes, the power play or penalty kill for months, players will have no choice but to acclimate to each other quickly. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said he isn’t worried.

“I think players adapt,” MacLellan said. “Timing and speed and systems play usually takes a few weeks. It’s no different than a training camp coming in, except it’ll be ramped up – the intensity part – quicker. I think players will adapt to it. I think might be scrambly at first, but it’ll be accelerated because of the seriousness and what’s at stake if you’re playing for a championship.”

Even though teams are expected to play a couple of exhibitions before games that count, rediscovering chemistry quickly could make all the difference, especially for those in best-of-five qualifying round series to get to the final 16.

“We’re going to have to find a way to feel good but also get to our team game, get the fundamentals down that way again,” said Foligno, whose Blue Jackets would play Tavares’ Maple Leafs. “The team that can get to their game quickest is going to have success.”

Florida GM Dale Tallon considers it a benefit to have all teams on a level playing field going into a 24-team playoff. But the newness of the situation adds a layer of unpredictability and could make this one of the most competitive chases for the Stanley Cup in history.

“There’s going to be some teams that are going to disappoint because they lost their momentum, there could be injuries in the training camp period of time if we rush too fast to get these guys up to speed,” Nashville GM David Poile said. “It’s going to be like nothing we’ve done before.”

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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: Teams with the best long-term outlook

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the teams with the best long-term outlook.

How are we defining long-term outlook? Pretty simple, and it comes down to one fairly important question: Does this team have a chance to win the Stanley Cup (or two Stanley Cups) over the next five years.

That takes into account talent currently on the roster, talent coming through the farm system, salary cap situation, and pretty much everything else that is required to win it all.

Where does your favorite team sit?

To the rankings!

1. Colorado Avalanche. Unless they royally screw it up somehow this is the ideal situation in both the short-and long-term. They could win the Stanley Cup as soon as this season, and should be a constant contender for the next five years (and more). They have superstar players just now entering their prime, they have great young players on cheap deals and a nice pipeline of talent coming through the system, and they have a great cast of complementary players around the stars. Nearly every core player is signed long-term and they have a ton of salary cap flexibility to add players where needed.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have been one of the best teams in the NHL for more than five seasons now and are still searching for that championship for this particular core. Even with their recent postseason shortcomings this core is still absolutely good enough to get it done, they are still mostly in their primes, and signed long-term. Salary cap situation will be tight, but they have elite players at every position on the ice and plenty of depth.

3. Boston Bruins. A Stanley Cup Finalist a year ago and the best team in the NHL this season. The Bruins are one of the league’s elite teams and well positioned to compete for the foreseeable future. The only thing that might start to slow them down is the age of some of their top players and a few questions beyond this season (contract status for their goalies, adding depth within the salary cap).

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. As long as they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel performing the way they have been they are going to be in a position to compete. There will come a time in the next few years where the former three really start to slow down (or maybe even retire) but that time is not here yet.

5. Washington Capitals. Similar outlook as the Penguins, where as long as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, and T.J. Oshie are doing their thing they are going to be in the mix for the Stanley Cup. They also have a really nice wave young talent starting to emerge with players like Ilya Samsonov and Jakub Vrana.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs. At some point they have to get through Round 1 of the playoffs, and until they do they will be a postseason punchline. But I like to bet on talent, and Toronto, even for all of its flaws, has a ton of talent. Championship talent. The big contracts at the top will require some creative salary cap maneuvering, but every team that wins a Stanley Cup has a similar roster construction with a small number of players eating up a significant portion of salary cap space. That concern is overblown.

7. St. Louis Blues. I like the Blues in the short-term. I like their chances to repeat this season, especially in the Western Conference. But they have some big free agents to deal with in the coming years and that creates at least a little bit of long-term uncertainty. They are not going away yet. But they do have some big questions to answer down the line (Alex Pietrangelo, the goalies, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron, etc.)

8. Carolina Hurricanes. A team that has been on the rise for a while and arrived last season with a stunning trip to the Eastern Conference Final. The Hurricanes have a great young nucleus in place with a sensational defense and a handful of outstanding young forwards led by Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and an emerging superstar in Andrei Svechnikov.

9. Philadelphia Flyers. There is a lot to like in Philadelphia right now. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracak can still be impact players in the short-term, while they have two front-line players in Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny in the prime of their careers. The X-factors here are the trio of Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, and Carter Hart. If they progress and become the players the Flyers hope they will that can be a game-changer in Philadelphia. That is especially true as it relates to Hart.

10. Vegas Golden Knights. An outstanding team in a very winnable division. The big concern here is that it is a little bit of an older team with several players in their core starting to approach age 30 and beyond.

11. New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin is one of the league’s most best offensive players, but what truly makes this team fascinating going forward is the young talent around him. They have two outstanding young goalies (Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev), an emerging star on defense in Adam Fox, and a potential superstar in Kaapo Kakko.

12. Edmonton Oilers. It is very tempting to put them higher on the list because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are that good. They are the best 1-2 punch in the league, and in theory that should give them a great window to compete in. But there remains a lot of questions after them.

13. Calgary Flames. They are not as good as their 2018-19 record and they are probably a little better than they have showed this season. There is a good core in place, as long as they do not do something outrageous like trade Johnny Gaudreau, or something.

14. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes is a potential championship trio, and 2019 first-round pick Vasili Podkolzin has enormous potential for when he makes the jump to North America. They still have a lot of work to do around that young core, though.

15. Florida Panthers. This season has been a massive disappointment, but Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are an amazing steals at the top of the lineup which gives them a huge advantage.

16. Nashville Predators. A tough team to get a feel for long-term. I like their talent, I think they still have a chance to compete for a title, but I also wonder if they already missed their best opportunity.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets. There is some really good talent here, and the defense duo of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski is tremendous. The performance of the goalies in the short-term will dictate a lot.

18. Dallas Stars. I feel like they need more impact talent at forward. Tyler Seguin is still really good, but Alexander Radulov isn’t getting any younger. John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen are the long-term faces of the franchise. A lot of their success this season is goaltending driven, and that’s fine in the short-term, but you can’t rely on that every single season.

19. New York Islanders. Given the current construction of the roster the Islanders are positioned to be a fringe playoff team, but lacking the superstar talent to really become a true Stanley Cup contender.

20. New Jersey Devils. Sometimes timing is everything. The Devils have had two of the past three No. 1 overall picks, but they did not have them in a year where there wasn’t a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, or even a Steven Stamkos available. Nico Hischier is outstanding, and Jack Hughes has the potential to be there, but there are some big questions around them.

21. Winnipeg Jets. Love the forward talent, really like the goalie, but have some serious concerns on defense. Like Nashville, I think we may have seen this team miss its best shot.

22. Chicago Blackhawks. The window slammed shut rapidly and brutally. They still have some high-end players, and Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach have big-time potential, but this is going to be three consecutive non-playoff seasons and five years without a playoff series win. Not sure if the window opens backup anytime soon. By the time Dach and Boqvist become stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews might be slowing down.

23. San Jose Sharks. I could see the Sharks rebounding next season and being a playoff team again, but the age of their core and the salary cap situation with some of those contracts is a long-term concern.

24. Minnesota Wild. I’m still having a hard time seeing the long-term direction here or where this team is going. Not a bad team. Not a great team. Just sort of stuck in the middle.

25. Arizona Coyotes. This is not a bad team, and there is definitely upside here, but if they can not re-sign Taylor Hall they will have a glaring lack of impact talent at forward and without some significant luck in the draft lottery will not be in a position to add any anytime soon.

26. Montreal Canadiens. They have good players and Marc Bergevin has made his share of good moves, but the end result is never anything other than mediocrity. That is a difficult cycle to get out of.

27. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin should be a reason for optimism, but there is no sign that ownership or management knows how to properly build around them.

28. Detroit Red Wings. The current roster is not good but they have draft assets and one of the most respected general managers in the league. The salary cap situation is also better than it looked a year or two ago. They are still a LONG way from contention.

29. Los Angeles Kings. They are finally starting to lean into the rebuild and have an interesting farm system, but it is going to take some time.

30. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have had a pretty great run throughout the salary cap era, winning a Stanley Cup, making three other Western Conference Finals, and almost always being a playoff team. But that chapter has closed and it is time for a new beginning and a rebuild.

31. Ottawa Senators. There should be reason for optimism here. There are some really good young players in place, they have salary cap space, but it all starts at the top with ownership. It is really tough to buy into them long-term for that reason.

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.