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.”
PITTSBURGH — Matt Murray‘s legacy with the Pittsburgh Penguins – such as it is at age 26 – is secure, as. That tends to happen when you have your name on the Stanley Cup. Twice.
It’s the goaltender’s future, however, that is murky.
Not that Murray is thinking about the uncertainty that awaits whenever the ”official” NHL offseason arrives. With restricted free agency looming and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on the league’s open market unknown, Murray is trying to keep it simple. Go to the rink. Stay sharp. Just play.
”All I’m focused on right now is preparing myself to be the best I can be on the ice,” Murray said Tuesday. ”The rest of it, it will take care of itself.”
Hopefully. Murray is currently working out with the rest of the Penguins in small groups during Phase 2 of the league’s Return to Play program. In a way, having only a handful of players on the ice at once instead of the full complement has sped up how quickly he’s reacclimated himself following the ”pause” that began in mid-March as the coronavirus spread. Fewer skaters equals more shots. More shots equals more opportunities to try and take hold of what has been a somewhat muddled starting goaltender situation.
The Penguins, who finished in fifth place in the Eastern Conference this season, had an All-Star goalie on the roster. But it wasn’t Murray. It was Tristan Jarry, who rode a hot streak during the first half to an unlikely berth in the midseason showcase, and sparked talk of becoming Murray’s successor sooner rather than later.
Going by the numbers, Jarry was better during the regular season, and it wasn’t particularly close. He had a significantly higher save percentage and lower goals-against average than Murray. Yet Jarry remains unproven in the playoffs. Not Murray, who went 21-9 in the postseason in 2016 and 2017 as the Penguins became the first team in a generation to capture back-to-back championships.
That figures to give Murray an edge in the eyes of coach Mike Sullivan, who arrived in Pittsburgh less than two weeks before Murray made his first NHL start. Every time there has been any sort of intrigue in the goaltending situation, Sullivan has consistently turned to Murray. It figures to be much the same when the league resumes play with the Penguins facing Montreal.
As weird as it might look whenever the NHL resumes – 24 teams split between two hub cities, no fans in the stands, and a ”bubble” designed to keep the players steer clear of the virus – Murray thinks when it comes down to it, it will still be playoff hockey. Just with a twist.
”This is, I think, the best option on the table, and we’re going to make the most of it,” he said. ”In terms of preparation, I would say it’s similar to the normal playoffs. It’s just an extra (round) series. The fact that we’ve been off for such a long time kind of makes it feel a little bit more like a tournament and just kind of builds the excitement. It’s great. It’s the best that we can do in the situation. I know me personally and our team, we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Dubnyk, Stalock, or Kahkonen? Gauging potential Wild goalie competition
Can the Minnesota Wild make the most of an unexpected Qualifying Round opportunity against the Vancouver Canucks? For all we know, that might boil down to the right goalie winning a competition to start for the Wild.
Not great for Dubnyk, but a few forces give him a chance to wrestle that job back.
To start, Dean Evason is still fairly freshly new as interim Wild head coach. But most obviously, the pandemic pause opens the door for competition. Stalock acknowledged as much to NHL.com’s Pete Jensen.
“I think whoever is looking the sharpest you got to go with the first night,” Stalock said last week. “You roll right into a [qualifying] series. It’s probably the first time for a lot of people to go through a training camp, and then all of a sudden you’re playing some of the most meaningful games of your lives.”
Evason reinforced the notion of the Wild having some goalie competition, too.
“We expect our goaltenders both to be ready and have that opportunity to make that choice as a staff — and hopefully a very difficult one because they’ll both be ready to go,” Evason told Sarah McLellan of the Star-Tribune in early June.
In that case, Evason was discussing a Wild goalie competition of Dubnyk vs. Stalock. For the purposes of this post, we’re also making an argument for Kaapo Kahkonen.
Breaking down the potential Wild goalie competition
Stalock currently leads Wild goalie competition
Heading into the All-Star break, Stalock (25 games played) and Dubnyk (24 GP) shared a pretty even workload overall. Afterward, Stalock played 13 games vs. just six for Dubnyk.
Such a transition cannot be solely pinned on Dubnyk’s struggles. Stalock caught fire after the break, managing an impressive .924 save percentage to go with a promising 9-3-1 record. The 32-year-old really only marginally outplayed Dubnyk earlier in the season, but that changed in a big way down the stretch.
Stalock had been a career backup before 2019-20. While he set a career-high with 38 games played before the pandemic pause, Stalock previously peaked with 28 GP in 2017-18.
His career .909 save percentage qualifies as “pretty strong for a backup, but maybe a little off the mark for a starter.”
Dubnyk has been there before, plenty of times.
Stalock is no stranger to NHL play with 151 career regular-season appearances. Even so, I must admit that I made a double-take at Dubnyk’s sheer experience. Dubnyk, 34, has already appeared in 520 regular-season games.
During unsteady times, the Wild may prefer to lean on Dubnyk’s experience. Maybe Dubnyk can rebound to somewhere close to his career work (.915 save percentage), or maybe most greedily, his larger Wild resume (.918 save percentage in 328 games over six seasons)?
You could argue that Dubnyk possesses the largest ceiling, at least for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Then again, the Wild have seen so much of his floor in 2019-20. This Evolving Hockey chart captures Dubnyk’s struggles, even behind a strong Wild defense, quite well:
Kahkonen a wild card for the Wild
Perhaps you could argue that the Wild would choose the past if they went with Dubnyk, the present if they chose Stalock, and the future if they tabbed Kahkonen.
That’s probably an oversimplification, but the Wild should probably give Kahkonen more than a token shot in a goalie competition.
For one thing, Kahkonen looked sharp at multiple levels. While you can only take so much from five games at the NHL level (3-1-1, solid .913 save percentage), Kahkonen dominated in the AHL (25-6-3, .927 save percentage). Aside from a bumpy first AHL season in 2018-19, Kahkonen’s recent numbers look pretty promising across the board.
There’s also something to be said for mystery.
Sure, the Wild might not know everything about Kahkonen. That could make it tougher for defenders to, say, get a feel for his rebound control.
But the same could be said for the competition. The Canucks would have less “tape” on Kahkonen, while they’ve seen plenty of both Dubnyk and Stalock over the years.
Whether it’s by skill, that lack of tape, coincidence, or some combination, we’ve seen brand-new goalies dominate. Go back from the likes of Ken Dryden to Cam Ward all the way to Matt Murray and you’ll see some serious runs behind goalies who weren’t particularly well known to friends or foes.
Does that make Kahkonen the best option over Dubnyk or Stalock in a Wild goalie competition? Not necessarily, but the Wild would be foolish not to at least explore the option.
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.
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.
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.
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?
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.