It has been 130 days since the NHL hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the sports world continues to reckon with adjusted schedules around the world, there also have been continuous nuggets of new information regarding the resumption of the NHL season, the draft, the playoffs and how it all affects 2020-21.
As players, executives and coaches traverse this new landscape, we will provide updates every week, answering all the burning questions about the various angles of the NHL’s relation to the pandemic. We’re getting closer to a return to the ice, and 24 teams hit the ice for training camp during this past week, as detailed in last week’s update. Get caught up on it all here:
We’ve had our first week of training camp. What’s the biggest takeaway?
Emily Kaplan: The big story so far is the NHL’s new injury non-disclosure policy — which, somehow, is even more vague than the old “upper-body, lower-body” designations. If players are absent, teams are only allowed to reveal that the player is “unfit to practice,” which could mean anything from a positive COVID-19 test, to a broken bone, to a simple maintenance day (remember, it’s not easy getting back to game speed after four months off!)
The policy was created to protect players’ medical privacy, but in practice, has created speculation and confusion.
Take, for example, the situation in Boston where David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase were both deemed “unfit to practice” through the first week. Citing the NHL policy, coach Bruce Cassidy couldn’t reveal much, so rumors circulated in Boston, especially when photos emerged of the two Czech players skating in a suburban Boston rink with non-NHLers. To silence some speculation, Pastrnak’s agent, JP Barry, clarified to the Boston Globe that while Pastrnak tested negative for the coronavirus, he is being quarantined “due to proximity of someone who tested positive.”
Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford‘s “unfit to practice” designation has been going over … well, exactly as you’d expect in Chicago. Crawford’s mysterious absence has been a daily headline (even as some local reporters suggest he could be back on the ice by early next week).
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby left a scrimmage early on Saturday and was sidelined Sunday. Certainly that’s of interest to Penguins fans (and non-Penguins fans, as well) but coach Mike Sullivan and Crosby’s teammates have been forced to stay mum on any specifics. On Sunday, Pittsburgh assistant coach Mark Recchi handled the media duties. When asked about Crosby, Recchi said: “You’re trying the wrong guy. I think you know the league’s stance right now. Sorry about that.”
I’ve been told by sources close to Crosby that his injury isn’t believed to be serious, though it doesn’t sound as if we’ll get any official clarity anytime soon.
Will the “unfit to practice/play” designations continue through the return to play?
Kaplan: Unfortunately, yes. This is the new normal for the NHL this summer. It’s going to be weird as heck when we get to the playoffs and half of a team’s starting lineup is absent for a game, and we’ll have no explanation for why.
The non-disclosure policy was implemented by the NHL, on heavy suggestion from the NHLPA, to protect players’ medical privacy. This was something for which the union fought really hard. NHLPA executive director Don Fehr explained his stance to us last week: “Essentially in this country, what we believe in is that certain medical things are private unless somebody chooses to make them public. That’s difficult to maintain in an industry like ours, but you do the best you can across the board. Somebody saying they have the right to know … legally, they probably don’t.”
Any early updates on any of the goalie decisions?
Greg Wyshynski: We chronicled the various goalie controversies around the NHL recently, and a few continue to play out. For example, Nashville franchise legend Pekka Rinne and understudy Juuse Saros, who outplayed him this season, are in a heated battle for Predators playoff starter.
“It’s a good problem to have as a coach, that you feel like you have a very difficult decision to make on who is going to be the starter in Game 1, because that means you feel like you have two really good guys that you believe in and that you think can help you win,” coach John Hynes told ESPN, adding that a platoon situation in the qualification round series against Arizona isn’t out of the question. “There’s one exhibition game. Do you split them, or do you play one? There’s not a lot of game action, but then you go into a stretch of three games in four days. When you look at the amount of hockey you play in a five-game series — if it goes five games, that’s 10 days.”
The Predators face the Coyotes in the qualification round, and Arizona has its own goalie questions. Darcy Kuemper would appear to have the upper hand as starter, but both he and Antti Raanta could get time in the opening series. “Obviously nobody knows how we’re going to do it. You will have to ask the coaches for that. I’m just trying to be ready, and whoever gets the nod in net, we’re going to be ready to go. That’s the benefit of having two goalies who are always ready to jump in,” Raata told the Arizona Republic.
Will Henrik Lundqvist grab the crease for the New York Rangers? The case for Lundqvist is strong, given his career playoff numbers and his recent run of success against qualification-round foe Carolina, going 3-0 with a .947 save percentage against the Hurricanes in the regular season. According to the Journal News, coach David Quinn has said that those numbers have merit, but so do “the seasons guys were having” and “what was going on when we left off.” Considering that rookie Igor Shesterkin went 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage after joining the team in January, one assumes that’s the reference.
In Vegas, coach Peter DeBoer was open in saying that both Marc-Andre Fleury and trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner will get time in the playoffs. “It’s a great luxury for us,” DeBoer said. “I’m not going to be afraid to play either. I don’t know what that’ll look like. Maybe it’ll be one guy starting the majority, or we’ll go back and forth. I’m going to keep an open mind on this because of the situation and the fact we have two great goalies.”
Finally, could there be a goaltending controversy in Pittsburgh? Matt Murray was lit up in a recent scrimmage and Tristan Jarry pitched a shutout — although, in fairness, Murray was facing some of the Penguins’ top players. Still, it was Murray who stayed behind in practice to put in some extra time on breakaways. Jarry’s play in camp and in the regular season are making a strong argument that he should get the nod to start the playoffs. But as the Penguins showed in their back-to-back Stanley Cups, having both goalies pulling the rope in the postseason is expected in Pittsburgh.
What happened with referees at training camps this week?
Wyshynski: The Toronto Maple Leafs used American Hockey League referees and linesmen in their practices on Day 2 of their training camps, in an effort to normalize the feel of their scrimmages, from the professionalism of faceoffs to just having a few extra bodies on the ice. Head coach Sheldon Keefe said that “any time we’re doing any sort of scrimmaging, we’d like to have the officials involved if we can.”
Well, it turns out they can’t. The NHL’s Phase 3 protocols didn’t list on-ice officials as part of the “permitted training camp personnel” that can have interactions with players.
“Apparently people around the NHL are paying attention to our media reports here in Toronto. I think there were some people around the league that perhaps liked the idea that we had referees, but didn’t like the idea that maybe they didn’t have the same available to them. So we had to make an adjustment and we’re perfectly fine doing that to keep things moving,” Keefe said last Wednesday.
The remedy was using Toronto Marlies head coach Greg Moore as an on-ice official in the next practice session. The St. Louis Blues followed that lead and had assistant coaches Steve Ott and Marc Savard on the ice for their scrimmage:
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) July 18, 2020
Pretty surreal seeing Steve “1,555 career penalty minutes” Ott in zebra stripes, to be honest.
I heard there was a storm in Edmonton that damaged Rogers Place. Is everything OK?
Kaplan: File this under, “only in 2020:” The NHL waited until the last possible moment to pick its two hub cities, and chose Edmonton and Toronto because they were deemed safest. But on Thursday, a significant storm rolled through Edmonton and caused damage at Rogers Place, a building that is just four years old and considered one of the nicest arenas in the league. Some of the images surfacing on social media were alarming:
— same ol 🅽🅳, 90% more Dan (@theDanalytic) July 16, 2020
In a twist, there actually was good news that followed. “The damage is cosmetic and is to the roof’s surface, as opposed to any structural damage,” Edmonton mayor Don Iveson said at a news conference Friday. “It doesn’t look good but … the building is sound and it will be possible to recover from this quickly.”
Oilers Entertainment Group said in a statement that significant rain, mixed with hail, led to pressure on the arena’s storm drainage system. The management group said the damage was limited in scope — mainly affecting a mezzanine-level corridor — and said everything should be a go when exhibition games are scheduled to begin on July 28. “We do not foresee any significant delays or barriers to either the Edmonton Oilers training camp or preparations and activities related to our hosting as the NHL hub city for the 2020 NHL playoffs,” OEG said in a statement.
How have teams handled positive tests?
Kaplan: We only know as much as NHL teams and players are willing to tell us — which isn’t much. Per the league and NHLPA’s policy, if a player tests positive in training camp, he can only return to team facilities once he tests negative twice, 24 hours apart, following the resolution of fever and improvement of respiratory symptoms. Per the policy, “The individual can also return to team facilities after a minimum of 10 days in self-isolation following the onset of symptoms if they have had no fever or respiratory symptoms for more than 72 hours.”
We did get a sense of how one team was reintegrating recovered players when Oilers defenseman Caleb Jones admitted he tested positive for the coronavirus before training camp. Jones completed his 14 days of isolation before camp started but was held out for the first three days as he got himself back up to speed. “It’s obviously a very weird disease, a weird time in the world right now,” Jones told reporters on a video call this week. “Some people get really affected by it and it can be deadly, and other people would never know they had it and I was maybe lucky enough to be in that group. If I had never gotten tested, I would have never realized I had it.”
Unlike the NBA, where players announcing positive tests has been more common, Auston Matthews is the only other NHL player to acknowledge a coronavirus diagnosis. The Maple Leafs center said he was mostly asymptomatic when he was diagnosed back home in Arizona last month. The positive test delayed Matthews from returning to Canada and joining teammates for Phase 2 voluntary workouts, but he has recovered and has been a full participant at training camp.
When will we learn more about the TV broadcast/streaming situation?
Wyshynski: The NHL is expected to have a news conference this week that’s going to go in depth on Phase 4 “bubble life,” including the way games will be broadcast and presented on television. That should include how the league will handle the “empty arena” experience, like whether the league will use artificial crowd noise and some camera angle innovations.
As expected, teams are announcing that the first few qualification round and round-robin games will be broadcast locally, with broadcast teams calling games off of television feeds. For example, both the Coyotes and the Tampa Bay Lightning announced their broadcasters — including pregame, between periods and postgame shows — will be housed inside Gila River Arena and Amalie Arena, respectively.
One thing I heard about an inside-the-hub-arena development: There will be giant “stages” placed behind the player benches with LED light screens, to take away the emphasis on empty seats.
And as always, what’s your latest pop culture addiction this week?
Kaplan: I rewatched “The Town” on Sunday and I totally forgot it was a hockey movie that has nothing to do with hockey. If Ben Affleck’s character didn’t flame out in his pro career (which, according to a flimsy explainer in the script, derailed when he began fighting his own teammates) he wouldn’t have resorted to a life robbing banks. It’s a rock-solid premise. The movie also let us witness Blake Lively’s iconic attempt at a Boston accent.
Wyshynski: My wife missed “Mission Impossible: Fallout” when it was in theaters, so I was happy to catch this stunt spectacular again and then revisit some of the other films in the series. I’m still partial to “Ghost Protocol” (the fourth one) as my favorite, for the innovation of director Brad Bird’s spy craft. I’d also argue that Brian DePalma’s original “M:I” holds up as the most rewatchable. But “Fallout” is incredible on its own merits, particularly including everything involving Henry Cavill in this movie. (Although the less said about the longest 15 minutes in human history during the movie’s climax, the better. No spoilers. If you’ve seen it, you get it.)