qualifying round

Auston Matthews tests positive for COVID-19 Toronto Maple Leafs Arizona
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Report: Auston Matthews tests positive for COVID-19

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Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews tested positive for COVID-19, according to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun. Friday continues to be a bad news for the NHL and other sports regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, as the Lightning confirmed that three players and a number of staffers also recently tested positive.

Simmons references two “NHL sources outside Toronto” for the breaking news regarding Matthews testing positive for COVID-19. This makes sense, as Matthews has been staying in Arizona. (More on that in a moment.) Simmons reports that members of the Arizona Coyotes may also have tested positive for COVID-19.

Frederik Andersen had also been staying with Matthews in Arizona. Simmons reports that Andersen tested negative for COVID-19 and is no longer staying with Matthews, though.

The Maple Leafs responded to the report later on Friday. For the most part, the Maple Leafs basically provided a “no comment.” That said, the phrasing “a person’s medical information in this regard is private” feels pretty pointed:

Maple Leafs statement on Auston Matthews COVID-19 report
via the Toronto Maple Leafs

While COVID-19 is halting such matters, the pauses seem temporary at the moment.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicated that the Lightning will attempt to resume Phase 2 if others don’t test positive. Simmons reports that Matthews is going into self quarantine with the hope of being able to travel and participate in Maple Leafs training camp around July 10.

Auston Matthews tests positive for COVID-19 in Arizona, a state hit hard

It’s worth circling back to the point that Matthews is located in Arizona.

Much like Florida, Arizona is a state that’s currently dealing with a troubling spike in COVID-19 cases. On Friday alone, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,246 new cases, and 41 deaths. This bumps Arizona’s total cases to 46,689 and total deaths to 1,312.

Despite all of this, Arizona and other states attempt to go “back to normal.” And, at least for now, the NHL seems committed to trying to return to play with an ambitious 24-team, two-hub city playoff format.

Seeing a star of Auston Matthews’ stature reportedly test positive for COVID-19 makes it all seem that much tougher to pull off. But we’ll see.

NHL announces 11 total positive tests

Meanwhile, the league is apparently taking over announcing any positive tests. On Friday, a release stated that since Phase 2 opened over 200 player have been tested and 11 came back positive.

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

OTHER NHL TEAMS, PLAYERS TEST POSITIVE FOR 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.

Mixed Blue Jackets injury news for NHL Playoffs: Jones in, Anderson out

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With a Qualifying Round best-of-five looming against the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets got mostly positive injury news lately. Seth Jones highlights the good injury news, while Josh Anderson is the most significant letdown.

Jones headlines good injury news for Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets activated Jones and fellow defenseman Dean Kukan off of IR on Thursday.

This capture the bigger picture: that the Blue Jackets should have quite a few key players back if that Qualifying Round series happens against Toronto. Jones joined Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and basically the kitchen sink on the injured list this season.

Jones, 25, scored six goals and 30 points in 56 games before injuries derailed his season.

By certain measures, Jones might not be quite the Norris Trophy-level defenseman many believe. His possession numbers are closer to solid than dominant, although some of that might boil down to playing more than 25 minutes per night.

Wherever Jones ranks in the stratosphere, he’s important to the Blue Jackets. So is Bjorkstrand and Atkinson, as this Evolving Hockey GAR Chart reinforces:

Blue Jackets injury news GAR
via Evolving Hockey

[MORE: Previewing Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs and other East Qualifying Round series]

Players Blue Jackets might not have in the lineup

You may look at that chart above and believe that Anderson isn’t much of a loss. In the framework of the 2019-20 season alone, that’s probably fair.

In the grand scheme of things, it likely is not fair, though. He’s been a useful player for Columbus for some time now. Anderson also boasts the sort of size and physical play that can make him difficult to handle in a playoff format. He was a handful at times for the Lightning during that shocking sweep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Anderson is unlikely to be available until at least September (sub required).

That’s a big blow, although it does leave the door open for a return during the postseason — if the Blue Jackets made an even better underdog run than in 2018-19.

A lack of Anderson hurts because, frankly, the Blue Jackets figure to struggle to score — even while healthier. With expanded rosters in mind, look at Portzline’s guesses for the forwards Columbus will have on hand:

Cam Atkinson, Emil Bemstrom, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Liam Foudy, Nathan Gerbe, Boone Jenner, Jakob Lilja, Ryan MacInnis, Stefan Matteau, Riley Nash, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg.

When you stack that group up against the firepower Toronto boasts in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and others, you can see why every Anderson-type helps.

Out of context, the eighth-ranked Maple Leafs probably shouldn’t be big favorites against the Blue Jackets.

Look at the difference in firepower, then consider very different levels of media focus. Put that together, and Columbus is likely to be framed as heavy underdogs.

That’s just the way John Tortorella & Co. like it. With Jones looking good to go, they might just have a shot at making a run.

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.

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.

Heading into 2019-20, Devan Dubnyk carried the top job. To put things mildly, things didn’t go as planned for Dubnyk. The veteran goalie lost the No. 1 job to Alex Stalock, while Bruce Boudreau lost his job altogether.

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:

Dubnyk Evolving Hockey Wild goalie competition

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.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Willie O’Ree, others on racism in and outside of hockey

Willie O'Ree racism in hockey
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

O’Ree and others on racism in and around hockey

• Hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree described George Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it as “very discouraging.” O’Ree added that, on a larger level, racism isn’t going to go away overnight. That said, after witnessing statements from the likes of Blake Wheeler acknowledging their privilege, O’Ree wonders if the truth about racism is finally “sinking in.” Maybe players can show that they’ve learned such lessons once play resumes? [CBC]

• Michael Traikos caught up with Kevin Weekes for his perspective on racism in and around hockey. On one hand, Weekes celebrates players “without a horse in the race” such as Jonathan Toews and Blake Wheeler for speaking up. On the other hand, Weekes emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do. [Toronto Sun]

• Jeff Veillette spots the sometimes-rampant racism in the “NHL 20” community. Unfortunately, it seems like EA Sports has a lot of work to do to improve this area. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the company is putting a lot of resources into fixing this problem, either. [Faceoff Circle]

CBA talks intensify, and other hockey bits

• Both TSN’s Darren Dreger and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman report that the NHL and NHLPA are intensifying talks to extend the CBA. Stabilizing escrow is a big factor for the players, as the pandemic pause is likely to hit them hard, and for quite some time. [More detail in 31 Thoughts, in particular]

• Read up on the Sens Foundation ending its relationship with the Ottawa Senators. [Sports Daily]

Nick Foligno and his family open up a new chapter with “The Heart’s Playbook.” [The Hockey Writers]

• The Oilers realize that, with the “championship pedigree” of the Blackhawks, an upset isn’t out of the question during the Qualifying Round. [Sportsnet; also read PHT’s previews for the West here]

• Which teams are oddsmakers favoring if action starts up again? [Featurd]

• Emily Kaplan looks at a coronavirus trend for Ducks fans: getting married at the Honda Center. Pretty fun. [ESPN]

• Could the Rangers repair their relationship with Lias Andersson? Such a push could help them as early as the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes. It certainly beats things only getting bitter and Andersson’s development stalling. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• When you get drafted 34th overall, as Dalton Smith did in 2010, you expect to play in the NHL. You don’t necessarily expect to only do so for one minute and 26 seconds in one game in late 2019 with the Sabres. Smith’s journey is quite the story by Nick Faris. [The Score]

• Grant Fuhr talks about what drove him to become a coach for one of the team’s in the upcoming 3-on-3 hockey league 3ICE. Sounds like it could be pretty wild stuff. [Desert Sun]

• Bill Hoppe goes in-depth on Victor Olofsson‘s chances of having staying power as a scorer with the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

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.

League clears up 2020 NHL Playoffs picture, including re-seeding

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[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

The NHL and NHLPA agreed to some key details to how the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will operate … assuming the playoffs can happen. We now know how the league will handle the Round Robin for Seeding, Qualifying Round, all the way to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Before we go round by round, note that the biggest takeaways are that the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will involve re-seeding (not bracketing) and that every round will include a best-of-seven series after the Qualifying Round/Round Robin for Seeding.

In other words, if this all comes to pass, prepare for a lot of hockey.

How the NHL Playoffs will work through 2020 Stanley Cup Final

Let’s review what we know so far.

Qualifying Round; Round Robin for Seeding

  • As announced earlier, each Qualifying Round (four per conference) series will go by a best-of-five format. Read more about that format here.
  • Johnston reports that the Round Robin for Seeding will involve three games each per team. Points percentage will serve as a tiebreaker if needed during the Round Robin for Seeding.

It was first believed that teams who won Qualifying Round series would face specific opponents based on bracketing. Instead, re-seeding means that the highest seeds will face the lowest seeds all the way down to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Here’s how “home ice” will work out, via the NHL:

* In the Qualifying Round, the higher-seeded team will be designated as the home team in Games 1, 2 and 5. The lower-seeded team will be designated as the home team in Games 3 and 4.

2020 NHL Playoffs: First Round through the 2020 Stanley Cup Final

To reiterate, following the Qualifying Round (best-of-five) and Round Robin for Seeding (three games apiece), each series will be a best-of-seven, with re-seeding. It might be easier to see how it flows this way, then:

  • Qualifying Round (best-of-five series, four series per conference); Round Robin for Seeding (three games apiece, top four teams in each conference involved). Re-seeding instead of bracketing.
  • First Round (best-of-seven series, four series per conference). Teams re-seed after First Round.
  • Second Round (best-of-seven series, two series per conference). Teams re-seed after Second Round.
  • 2020 Eastern Conference Final (best-of-seven series) and 2020 Western Conference Final (best-of-seven series).

Via the NHL, here’s how “home-ice” will play out before the 2020 Stanley Cup Final:

* In the First Round, Second Round and Conference Finals, the higher-seeded team will be designated as the home team in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. The lower-seeded team will be designated as the home team in Games 3, 4 and 6.

  • 2020 Stanley Cup Final (best-of-seven series).

Finally, the league shared this “home-ice” info for the 2020 Stanley Cup Final:

* In the Stanley Cup Final, the team with the higher regular season points percentage will be designated as the home team in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. The team with the lower regular season points percentage will be designated as the home team in Games 3, 4 and 6

NHL, NHLPA opt for more hockey approach

Before Thursday, some expected that the First Round, and possibly the Second Round, might instead be best-of-five series. Instead, the NHL and NHLPA opted to go longer.

Johnston captures the risk part of that risk-reward scenario quite well, noting that two extra best-of-seven rounds could add nine days to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that the playoff tournament could last as long as 68 days. That requires some big gambles that COVID-19 cases won’t spike to the point that the NHL needs to go on “pause” once more.

If it all works out, then the “integrity” of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is definitely emphasized. (Also, more best-of-seven series definitely strengthens the “toughest ever” arguments.) Few can credibly say they’ve been robbed of a real chance, given that 24 teams are involved.

We’ll have to wait and see if it’s all worth it, and if the NHL can actually pull this off. Personally, re-seeding seems fair if it doesn’t lead to additional travel, while the bevy best-of-seven series seems dicey.

Naturally, the NHL and NHLPA still need to hash out other details.

MORE ON NHL RETURN TO PLAY:

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.