Let’s be honest. We don’t know whether this is going to work. We have no idea whether the NHL’s Stanley Cup tournament scheduled to run from Aug. 1 into early October (if necessary) will come to fruition.
We cannot even guarantee that the 24 NHL clubs invited to the 2020 Cotillion Ball will make it to their respective hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton because we don’t know whether clubs will be able to avoid outbreaks during the two-week training camp period that opens across the continent on Monday.
But it is safe to say that the NHL and NHLPA conducted all due diligence and have attempted to construct an environment that will protect its athletes’ and employees’ physical and mental health as much as possible. Indeed, the run-up to this return to play has been remarkably drama-free. If any league has a chance to pull it off, the NHL at least seems in decent position.
And no, attempting to play this tournament does not equate to what popularly and improperly has been framed in so many precincts as a money grab. This is about an industry attempting to sustain itself and preserve jobs — how many non-playing personnel and folks in attendant industries would be out of work had the league simply thrown in the towel weeks ago? — in as safe an environment as can be created in the midst of a pandemic.
It is July and 24 teams are alive in the chase for the Stanley Cup. Sixteen clubs will hook up in best-of-five qualifying rounds, the east in Toronto, the west in Edmonton, while each conference’s top four teams engage in a round-robin to determine playoff seeding and home-ice/last-change advantage.
Then, four rounds of best-of-seven. Before that, though, between the end of the qualifying round and the start of Round 1 of the playoffs, Stage 2 of the Lottery, in which the eight qualifying-round losers will be thrown into the hopper with each having a 12.5-percent chance of coming away with the right to select Alexis Lafreniere as the first pick in October’s entry draft.
Boston had the best record in the NHL when play came to a halt on March 12, defending champ St. Louis was second and Tampa Bay was third. Are they still the favorites to win the Cup? Is there any form here, when there is no way to know how the virus will impact the competition?
Is there any form, when we are unable to truly gauge the physical and psychological readiness of the players and we have no idea how individual players will respond to weeks of semi-isolation in a hotel, even if the bubble includes a golf course and other recreational activities?
We have no idea how many players (at a time) a team might lose because of positive tests for COVID-19. We also have a league that won’t want to provide that information, although we might be able to deduce if a team shows up for Game 1 of the qualifiers with five guys from their AHL team.
We don’t know whether the teams engaged in the seeding round-robins — the Bruins, Lightning, Caps and Flyers in the east; the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights and Stars in the west — will be as well-prepared for their first-round playoff matchups as their opponents who already will have begun to build momentum off a qualifying-round victory.
Player opt-outs have been more prevalent in MLB and the NBA. As of Sunday, the Flames’ Travis Hamonic and the Oilers’ Mike Green (obtained from Detroit at the trade deadline) are the most prominent of the five to opt-out. The deadline for doing so is 5 p.m. Monday.
The Blue Jackets, who will face the Maple Leafs in the qualifier, have gotten healthy during the pause, with Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Oliver Bjorkstrand ready to rock. The Islanders have regained Casey Cizikas and Adam Pelech. The Penguins will have a healthy Jake Guentzel. Dougie Hamilton will be in for Carolina, Chris Kreider for the Rangers, Brian Boyle for the Panthers and Ilya Mikheyev for the Leafs. Healthy, that is, as applies to having recovered from injuries.
We don’t know whether a player or mass of players will take a seat for the national anthem. We don’t know whether a player or group of players will address Black Lives Matter and the ongoing movement for justice. It has been quiet on the hockey front following the spate of statements issued on social media immediately following the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody.
We don’t know what level of hockey to which we will be treated after this unique pause. We don’t know about the impact of playing in spectator-free arenas, and we don’t know about the impact of playing games at odd hours.
There is one thing we do know, however. The puck drops Monday.
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