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NHL monitoring situation before choosing where to play games

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Concerns about Canadian coronavirus restrictions could push hockey south of the 49th parallel into the U.S. this summer.

Seven of the 10 locations the NHL has zeroed in on to hold playoff games if it resumes are American cities not restricted by Canada’s 14-day mandatory quarantine upon arrival. As 24 teams figure out how to squeeze an expanded roster and limited personnel into one of two ”hub” cities, the Vancouver Canucks are even considering relocating training camp to the U.S. if the situation doesn’t change in the coming weeks.

”It’s something that we’re thinking about, but also too we just want to give it a few more days just to see if something is going to change,” Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said Wednesday. ”The perfect scenario we’d like to use our facilities. We’re probably going to have 30, 32 guys here and we have great facilities for our players, so we would like to do that first and foremost. But we’ve talked about moving it off site.”

The Canucks are in the same boat as the NHL, which is in no rush to choose among the 10 finalists: Las Vegas, Columbus, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton. It will in the next few weeks select two or three to host Eastern and Western Conference brackets and then the Stanley Cup Final by factoring in government regulations, the frequency of COVID-19 in the community and availability of testing.

”We want to just be in a position to, in real time, have lots of options once we understand what the state of play is at the time we need to make the decision,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”We could pick one or two locations, but that might, if we made the decision today, not turn out to be as good a decision as one that we make three, four weeks from now because things are continuing to evolve in all of the places that we play.”

The league told GMs on Tuesday to plan for a roster of 28 skaters and unlimited goaltenders for training camps that won’t begin before early July and games without fans several weeks later. Each team will have a personnel cap of 50 in the city where games are played, though the Montreal Canadiens could be without one of their top players.

Montreal GM Marc Bergevin said forward Max Domi, who is high risk because he has Type 1 diabetes, will not play if doctors deem it to be unsafe.

Before the NHL commits to where games could be held, officials are planning for multiple scenarios. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly is engaged in regular dialogue with the U.S. and Canadian governments and medical experts to determine what the health and safety landscape might look like this summer.

”That doesn’t mean we get to look for any type of exception or any type of favoritism,” said Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, who’s on the Return to Play committee. ”I think we just want to continue to follow the guidelines that are set out for us and do the best that we can. Hopefully things improve to a point where those things could be possibly loosened up, not just for us but for all of society.”

Because testing is lagging in Ontario and British Columbia’s government isn’t expected to make exceptions for the NHL, Edmonton could be Canada’s best hope. Oilers GM Ken Holland said with an attached practice rink and hotel and nearby restaurants, ”Edmonton checks off in my opinion all the boxes.”

Except that Daly said Canada’s 14-day quarantine would be a nonstarter. The NHL is already facing what Winnipeg forward Andrew Copp called a ”time crunch” to fit in effectively five rounds of playoffs, and if the focus shifts solely on U.S. locations, Las Vegas and Columbus appear to be the front-runners.

Beyond the abundance of hotels and sparkling new rink the Las Vegas Strip can offer, the arena district in Columbus could serve as an effective bubble for the NHL.

”Whether it’s from the building or the facilities surrounding the building to accommodate hotel rooms, meals — whatever it needs to be, we’ve covered it,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Also the state of Ohio is in pretty good shape as far as flattening the curve and providing a safe environment that way. The transportation is easy if needed between facilities in Columbus, and we have a lot of rink facilities that we can use for the amount of teams that would be in the tournament.”

There wouldn’t be much of a home-ice advantage without fans, and the league is considering moving the ”home” team to the other city. But that isn’t stopping NHL executives from pitching the ability to host playoff games.

”We have a state of the art facility in Cranberry, the Lemieux Center, and the medical center attached and we have plenty of hotels and everything like that,” Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said. ”We meet the criteria but we understand there’s other cities that do, also.”

The two biggest surprises on the NHL’s list were Chicago and Los Angeles. The Blackhawks and Kings each said they were honored to be considered.

But not being a coronavirus hotspot and having a surplus of testing are key elements to the decision. Bettman said the league won’t interfere with an area’s medical needs or take up tests from the general public, and those in hockey hoping to land games know that.

”None of us would agree to a situation where we are taking away testing from people that need it,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said. ”Several weeks from now, we would really have to be in a position where the health care community and the government community of whatever country we’re in, whatever city we’re in are in agreement that this can be done and it can be done in a respectful, conscientious way.”

PHT Morning Skate: Wilson on Sharks’ future; Miller helping charity

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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.

• Sharks GM Doug Wilson on Bob Boughner’s future, issues with his team, and the future. [NBC Bay Area]

• Why a 22-team format would work better for the NHL. [Jets Nation]

• Vancouver is among the potential cities that could serve as an NHL hub for the restart. But, according to health officials, British Columbia won’t bend the rules for NHL players. [CTV News]

• That could force the Canucks to hold their training camp in Washington state. [CTV]

• “In no way, shape or form should our federal government do anything “special” to relax border restrictions on Canadians coming back to the country or others trying to enter Canada simply to appease hockey fans who won’t be able to go see the games anyway.” [Toronto Star]

• How the Devils are preparing for the unique NHL Draft lottery. [NJ.com]

• The Penguins-Flyers five OT playoff game from 2000 will be featured as part of an NBC Sports RSN podcast anthology series: “Sports Uncovered,” which will be released June 25. [NBC Sports]

• It’s look like Sabres Lawrence Pilut is about to leave for the KHL. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

Ryan Miller is making charity a priority during his downtime by auctioning off game-worn gear. [OC Register]

Adam Pelech (Achilles) and Casey Cizikas (leg laceration) will be ready to go the Islanders in their matchup against the Panthers. [Islanders Insight]

• Could a salary cap squeeze end Jaden Schwartz‘s time in St. Louis? [St. Louis Gametime]

• Lias Andersson could be loaned to Sweden’s HV71 for the 2020-21 season. [Blueshirt Banter]

• Craig MacTavish has been named head coach of Swiss side Lausanne HC. Former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda is one of the club’s new investors as well as the Director of Hockey Ops. [Swiss Hockey News]

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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.

Sweet 16: NHL playoffs qualifying round tough to predict

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The NHL’s regular season is over and the chase for the Stanley Cup is on if hockey returns this summer.

The league settled on a 24-team postseason format that Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano supported back in March as the coronavirus was shutting down sports.

”You can’t eliminate teams who are out on points percentage or stuff like that,” Giordano said. ”I think you go 12 and 12. More teams get in this year, maybe a couple of byes at the top and play it out.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences get byes into the final 16 except for a handful of round-robin games to determine seeding. That’s Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

”It rewards those teams that had a good regular season, and it’s going to serve as almost a little bit of a preseason for those top four in each conference,” said NBC Sports analyst Patrick Sharp, who won the Cup three times as a player with Chicago. ”There’s standings on the line and you want to position yourself the best you can, but it’s an opportunity for those guys to kind of get the rust off and get ready for a tough opponent because whoever they face in that first round is going to be coming off a pretty intense series.”

The top seeds would face the winners of these eight opening-round, best-of-five series:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens

Penguins captain and three-time champion Sidney Crosby didn’t mind going directly into playoffs given the limited timing. His reward is a matchup against elite goaltender Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, who had 15 fewer points than Pittsburgh when the season was halted.

Season series: Penguins won two of three.

What Sharp says: ”Price could be key in this series. … Pittsburgh is a team that’s going to get healthy, hopefully. They had some key guys injured before the shutdown that were going to miss significant games down the stretch.”

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers

Carolina was one of two teams (along with Tampa Bay) that voted against this playoff format. The Hurricanes shouldn’t need emergency goaltender David Ayres anymore with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer healthy and Dougie Hamilton ready to return on defense.

Season series: Rangers won all four.

What Sharp says: ”I like the way (the Hurricanes) compete, and they can shut games down with the best of them. Now they got their goaltenders healthy, Dougie coming back. I like their chances. … They were an exciting team to watch, the New York Rangers. (Winger Artemi) Panarin is making everybody better offensively.”

No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers

This is a rematch of a 2016 series, but basically everything has changed for these teams since. Barry Trotz has put his stamp on the Islanders, and three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville is in his first season with high-flying Florida.

Season series: Islanders won all three.

What Sharp says: ”It’s two different styles of play. The Islanders and Barry Trotz and (GM Lou Lamoriello), they’re going to be a very disciplined, defense-oriented team … That neutral zone’s going to be clogged. And for a team like the Panthers that showed this season that they would trade a few chances to get a few chances … it’s going to be a tough matchup for them.”

No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

If Toronto is to bring the Cup home for the first time since 1967, Auston Matthews and Co. first have to deal with the pesky Blue Jackets who eliminated the top-seeded Lightning in the first round last year.

Season series: Split two games.

What Sharp says: ”You know what you’re facing with the Blue Jackets. It’s going to be an in-your-face game, a hard-nosed matchup. And Toronto, you finally get away from Boston but now you’ve got to face a team like Columbus that we saw how well they played against Tampa Bay last year, so it doesn’t get easier for Toronto.”

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks

Connor McDavid gets just his second taste of the playoffs in his fifth season. No. 97, who had 97 points in the regular season, gets to ride alongside NHL leading scorer Leon Draisaitl against an aging Blackhawks opponent.

Season series: Blackhawks won two of three.

What Sharp says: ”I don’t know if you can slow (McDavid) down in a playoff series any easier than you can in the regular season. … That’s a tough matchup for anybody, especially Chicago, a team that gives up more prime scoring chances than anybody that’s left in the playoff group.”

No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes

Nashville and Arizona each made a major in-season move. The Predators replaced coach Peter Laviolette with John Hynes and the Coyotes traded for 2018 MVP Taylor Hall. Only one of them will get into the final 16.

Season series: Split two games.

What Sharp says: ”It seems like the coaching change did make a little bit of difference for the Preds. … Arizona is a team that has trouble scoring goals, but they can clamp things down defensively. They have great goaltending, they keep the puck out of the net at a pretty good clip. Those are teams that are going to be tough to play in these short, best-of-five series.”

No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild

The Canucks get goalie Jacob Markstrom back from a knee injury, and he has had the benefit of skating at home in Sweden during the pause. Minnesota interim coach Dean Evason gets a chance to show he deserves the full-time job.

Season series: Wild won two of three.

What Sharp says: ”They’ve got some core pieces there in Vancouver that are going to get a taste of the big stage, the big playoff matchups. It’s going to be great for their development. … (The Wild) have that one last crack to show what they have as a group. This might be the last chance that this core group in Minnesota has to kind of win a few playoff rounds.”

No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

The constantly changing Flames face the continuity of the Jets, and the winner of this series could make some real noise in the West. Some big changes are probably coming for the loser.

Season series: Jets won only meeting in overtime.

What Sharp says: ”It seemed like (the Flames) were starting to find their groove. But they’re facing a team in Winnipeg that right before the shutdown, they were playing some intense hockey. They knew what they were up against. They kind of dug in for the playoffs.”

Plenty to figure out before NHL decides on hub cities

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Whenever the NHL is able to finish out the 2019-20 season, the games will be played in two “hub” cities which will host each conference.

The league is still investigating the cities they’ll use, which will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

“We’re going to go to the places that in terms of the logistics, the health issue I talked about, the testing issue I talked about, the governmental issues we talked about, we’re not hung up on east‑west,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman on a video conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “For TV scheduling it may be better if we’re in different time zones, but we’re going to go to the places that we think are the safest and make the most sense medically at the time.”

As the NHL revealed on Tuesday, 10 cities are in the mix.

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

The Canadian government currently has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the country. That could affect Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver’s chances to host.

“The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”

All of those markets, outside of LA, feature a team in the Return to Play plan. Bettman said that there is a chance a team could move to the other “hub” city if their location is one of the chosen two. For example, if Vegas and Columbus are selected, the Western Conference will play in Columbus and the Eastern Conference would play their games in Vegas.

But it’s never that easy. Logistics may require a team to play in its home city, but it won’t be as advantageous as it usually is.

“[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said. “They’ll be staying in the same conditions that everybody else is.”

What comes next is to move into Phase 2 next week with players holding on- and off-ice training in small groups at team facilities. That could include players from different teams who live in the same city.

“This is a little bit different dynamic,” said Daly, “so we felt like it was important at the request of the NHL Players’ Association to make it available, but it will come down to the individual club specifics as to whether they can really accommodate those players on any real basis.”

If all goes well Phase 3, teams entering formal training camps, will get under way in July. That could set up the 24-team return in August, perhaps?

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
An overview of the Western Conference series
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Return to Play reaction; DeBoer on Golden Knights

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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.

• On the NHL’s Return to Play plan: “While the NHL has a plan to resume the season, it appears to be written on a cocktail napkin soaked in beer. These are confusing times, as it is. Trying to logistically plan a season that may or may not happen only adds to the confusion.” [National Post]

• Playing a full, 82-game 2020-21 schedule? Kicking off next season with the Winter Classic? It could happen. [Ottawa Citizen]

• A Q&A with NHLPA executive Donald Fehr on the Return to Play plan: “There are still things that have to be negotiated. We haven’t done the Phase 3 or Phase 4 protocols. There are some things about the [return-to-play] format that aren’t quite finished. There’s a lot to do, but that issue will certainly be one that will be raised. And I’m fairly confident that we’ll find a way to resolve it. Nobody wants to expose someone to unreasonable risks given the circumstances.” [ESPN]

• Peter DeBoer on his Golden Knights team: “It’s the most talented team I’ve had in my coaching career. It seems like a great combination of talent and character and leadership.” [NHL.com]

• On rethinking “success” at the NHL Draft. [1st Ohio Battery]

• Legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson is joining the Big Ten as a special advisor. [Detroit News]

• Brett Riley, who served as an assistant with Colgate last season, will be the first head coach of the new Long Island University men’s hockey program. [College Hockey News]

• Finally, uh oh…

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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.