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Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Blackhawks’ Crawford, and more

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Monday, July 13 represented a big day in the NHL return-to-play plan, as formal training camps began — naturally there was plenty of news.

To little surprise, such training camp news also brought uncertainty. This post won’t hit on all 24 NHL teams involved in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but let’s take a look at some of the rumblings from around the league:

Blackhawks’ Crawford, other absences lead to speculation

At the moment, the NHL elects not to name players or teams while announcing positive COVID-19 tests.

The bright side of that is that players gain at least a modicum of privacy. The downside is that fans and others are left to speculate about the nature of absences. To some extent, this follows the NHL’s clear-as-mud transparency when it comes to injury updates already, only turned up to 11.

Rank Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford as one of the players people are speculating about during this first day of NHL training camps. If you’re looking for more from the Blackhawks on Crawford, you were largely out of luck.

“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”

Blackhawks fans are probably used to uncertainty regarding Crawford, being that his career was threatened by concussion issues. Such issues, and Chicago’s mediocre overall play, might have pushed Crawford’s strong work under the radar. During the last three months of the truncated season, Crawford’s save percentage didn’t sink below a splendid .927. For a team as porous defensively as the Blackhawks, they must hope that Crawford will eventually be fit to play — particularly after trading Robin Lehner.

It would be a sad way for Crawford to end his Blackhawks career, too, as he’s a pending UFA.

Now, other goalies sat out day one of NHL training camps, too. Marc-Andre Fleury joined Crawford with that distinction. But while the Blackhawks shared few Crawford details, the Golden Knights deemed MAF’s absence a maintenance day.

Though not a comprehensive list, here are a few other notable absences from day one of NHL training camps:

Noteworthy names attending NHL training camps on day one

Going over every single player who participated would be a fool’s errand. Consider a few names that stood out, though.

Assorted bits, including Gritty

Now, for some quick random bits.

Matt Niskanen said it right:

“The world is pretty bonkers right now,” Niskanen said, via Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nothing is normal … But as hockey players, we just want that (Cup) chance.”

Actually, (Niskanen’s … Flyers’ colleague?) Gritty also got it right:

The first one to the rink? Well, the name Gritty makes sense then, I guess.

If you’re looking for the best gesture of them all, it’s probably the Oilers’ tribute to Colby Cave.

Although, the Maple Leafs also made quite a statement by wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts as a group:

If news and other bits from day one of NHL training camps are any indication, there will be a lot of stories to sort through. At least some of them will involve Gritty, too, so that’s nice.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

NHL: 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 (June 8)

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The NHL announced that 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2, which began on June 8. Phase 3 (formal training camps) began on Monday (July 13).

The NHL explained how those positive COVID-19 test results broke down since June 3.

  • 30 NHL players participating in Phase 2 (limited skating at team facilities with small groups of teammates) tested positive for COVID-19. The league noted that more than 600 NHL players participated in Phase 2 activities.
  • The NHL noted that they’re aware of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among players who stayed outside of Phase 2 protocol. (It’s unclear if that number could climb if more players still need to be tested.)

In sharing this announcement, the NHL allowed a look into its daunting process. The league conducted almost 5,000 COVID-19 tests, with the 600-plus players involved. (That’s certainly thorough. On the other hand, one can only speculate about the vast quantity of COVID-19 tests required for the entire NHL playoff process. Some will argue that it’s simply not worth it.)

Check out the full NHL release about 43 players testing positive for COVID-19 here:

Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, and Roman Polak rank among the players who’ve opted out of an NHL return to play for various reasons. Other NHL players face a Monday 5 p.m. ET deadline to opt out. (Although there could be special circumstances, such as the Canadiens and Max Domi waiting to make a decision.)

More on positive COVID-19 results, and the process the NHL is undergoing

The NHL states that players who tested positive are following CDC and Health Canada protocols, such as self-isolating. It also noted that the league will not identify players or teams involving positive COVID-19 tests.

Of course, that won’t stop speculation, whether players or teams are named officially or not.

Earlier on Monday, word surfaced that the Penguins “voluntarily sidelined” nine players who may have had “secondary exposure” to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. As of this writing, players haven’t been named, leaving people to speculate.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews confirmed that he contracted COVID-19, backing up a June report by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Matthews noted that he was still able to train despite the positive COVID-19 test.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” Matthews said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Most importantly, Matthews said he’s feeling good and healthy after self-isolating.

Either way, Matthews’ name surfacing caused controversy. It remains to be seen if reporters and others unearth other names as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers approach, and you can bet people will try to guess if the league and its teams decide not to be particularly forthcoming.

Plenty of challenges ahead for the NHL

Read the full list of critical dates here, but consider these points of interest as the NHL aims to award the 2020 Stanley Cup amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out.
July 26: Teams report to their hub city. Eastern Conference teams go to Toronto, while West teams head to Edmonton.
July 28-30: Exhibition games.
Aug 1: 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4).
Aug 11: First Round begins.
Aug 25: Second Round begins.
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin.
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins.
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded.

The NHL set expectations for regular updates regarding positive COVID-19 tests. Can the league navigate all of those bumps in the road to October, mid-November training camps, and a 2020-21 season that may start as early as Dec. 1?

We’ll have to wait and see.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Training camp storylines

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It is July 13 and training camps open today for the 24 teams participating in the NHL’s Return to Play plan. On Friday, the league and NHLPA ratified the RTP protocols and a four-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. After a four-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic we got labor peace and hockey back (for now).

As players reunite to begin practicing ahead of the August 1 start date, there are plenty of storylines to ponder over these next few weeks. After months of speculation, we have some certainty about a few things, while we wait for other things to play out.

In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at some of the bigger storylines as NHL camps open.

1. Injuries, opt outs affecting rosters

NHL teams began releasing their camp rosters over the weekend. There have been a number of absences from those lists. Nolan Patrick (migraines) will not be with the Flyers; Mike Green, Travis Hamonic, Karl Alzner were among the first players to opt out ahead of Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline. The Canadiens and Max Domi (Type-1 diabetic) will wait 7-10 days before deciding if he should participate. What about Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko (Celiac disease)? Or Brian Boyle (Chronic myeloid leukemia)?  With expanded rosters teams will be able to adjust, but certain absences could leave holes in lineups that may not be able to be filled.

Kakko is on the Rangers’ camp roster as of Monday. Could that change? “If the doctors and the world of science told us not to play him, he’s not playing. It’s that simple,” team president John Davidson said last month.

This also rolls into the NHL’s plan not to release information about if a player tests positive for COVID-19. That first time a player misses practice or a game, the questions will begin.

Meanwhile, the Penguins announced Monday that nine players will be sidelined from camp after potential secondary exposure “to an individual who had contact with a person that has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”

News of positive tests or players being held off the ice will be a regular occurrence. What will happen if a roster is ravaged by the virus, as we’ve seen in Major League Soccer and the NWSL?

[Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

2. Coaches, players with new teams getting extended practice time

For coaches like Dean Evason, Peter DeBoer, and John Hynes, and players like Ondrej Kase, J.G. Pageau, llya Kovalchuk, Tyler Toffoli, and Alec Martinez, they didn’t get a training camp with their new teams. These three weeks will allow the coaches the time to hammer home their systems and give the players the chance to gel with new teammates — some of whom they’ve only played with for a handful of games following the trade deadline.

“I love training camp,” Hynes said last month. “You can make a big difference as a coach in training camp. I think it’s how you plan it out and how organized you are, [and you can] hit the ground running. Players come in knowing the expectations, physically, mentally, how we want to practice… You have an opportunity to teach, install and condition, without games every other day. I’m really excited to get back with the group and build upon some things we liked, but also now we’ve got a chance to really iron out some things we want to be really good at.”

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3. Crease decisions

Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray? Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner? Devan Dubnyk or Alex Stalock? Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros? Igor Shesterkin or Henrik Lundqvist? Having two capable goalies could prove to be vital in this kind of format, but one has to take over the starting role at the beginning. Teams will be using these next three weeks to answer the question of who starts Game 1. Given those teams in the Qualifiers will be playing best-of-five series, how long exactly will be the leash be for the starters if there are early struggles?

4. Benefit of the break for defending champs

The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover didn’t affect the Blues during the regular season. Despite losing Vladimir Tarasenko in October, they rolled through the Western Conference and finished with the second-highest points percentage in the NHL (.662) after playing 71 games. Now they get Tarasenko back, and will come off a four and a half month break instead of going right back into the playoff grind again.

That’s good for the legs and what lies ahead. Only two teams have done the back-to-back since 1998. It’s never easy to get through four rounds, but this would be a unique circumstance for a repeat.

“They’re hungry. They want to get back,” said head coach Craig Berube. “We’ve got good motivation, I believe, coming back and playing and trying to repeat. Our guys are in a pretty good spot now.”

Four Blues players and a coach did test positive for COVID-19, but there hasn’t been an indication how that will affect the team at the beginning of camp.

5. How ready will top seeds be for First Round?

As the Stanley Cup Qualifiers are going on, the top four seeds in each conference will play three games to determine where they’ll stand in the First Round. What kind of level will those eight teams play at knowing they’re just playing for seeding, which doesn’t include traditional home ice? If you’re Bruce Cassidy or Jared Bednar or Jon Cooper or Todd Reirden, you’re not worried about wins and losses; your concern is getting your players back up to speed and your goalies ready for when the playoffs begin.

“We’re kind of setting the tone for how things are going to be moving forward,” said Reirden. “We’ll do everything we can to prepare our players to be ready for that round robin game where we can affect our seeding, and then in addition to that, going into our first playoff series against whoever that may be.”

MORE:
Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million

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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.

Canadiens’ Domi eager to play, but concerned about safety

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Max Domi is keeping ready, just in case. The Canadiens forward continues to work out in his home gym as he awaits word from the NHL and NHLPA whether the 2019-20 season will resume, and if it will resume with his team involved.

It’s been over two months since the NHL suspended play. At the time, the Canadiens had 11 games left and were 10 points out of the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. That’s a tall mountain to climb. It seems less than ideal to have teams like Montreal, who are a good ways out of the playoff race, return after all this time to play out the rest of the schedule. If and when games resume, beginning with some sort of playoffs is the likely route.

Returning to play amid the coronavirus pandemic isn’t an easy option for Domi, a Type 1 diabetic. He’s aware of the risk.

“I think everyone is obviously a little on edge about this and worried about getting the disease or someone they know getting the disease,” he told reporters on Thursday. “Obviously, it’s scary. Being a Type 1 diabetic is something that raises some concern, but you really don’t know how everyone is going to be affected by this disease, so just because I’m a Type 1 doesn’t change much. I would handle myself the same way if I didn’t have it, so I’m just trying to stay safe and stay healthy as much as I can.”

The unknown is the biggest issue facing an NHL return to play. The league and Players’ Association can put together a number of models, but there are so many logistics to work out and things could change on a daily or weekly basis.

“If it’s safe, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure everyone will jump on board, if they can guarantee not only the safety of just the players, but the training staff, the media guys, the coaching staff, the management, everyone,” Domi said. “There are so many people involved, the on-ice officials, the off-ice officials, there’s so much to really discuss. I’m very confident that the people in charge over at the NHL and the NHLPA, they’re doing everything they possibly can to figure this out and move forward and progress in whatever way works and fits within the constraints the governments have provided us.

“Nobody wants to be put in a position where they’re in danger or you’re putting others in danger, so it’s really as simple as that. If it’s safe, I’m sure every player would want to play. I’m very confident in that.”

Domi, who scored 17 goals and recorded 44 points in 71 games this season, can be a restricted free agent in the off-season. For now, he said he’s not thinking about his next contract.

“There are so many more important things going on in the world than just my contract,” he said. “I understand. I guess all I can really tell you is I want to be with Montreal, I want to be here, I love playing in Montreal, I love my teammates, I love this team, and I love the city, so my hope is to play here for a long time. That never changed since I played my first game here, so that’s that.”

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

MORE CANADIENS:
Canadiens’ Price reaches out to grieving Nova Scotia boys
Long-term outlook for the Montreal Canadiens

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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.