Hockey is expected to take its first baby steps back this coming week with most of the 24 NHL clubs, the Bruins likely among them, beginning their informal small-group sessions at rinks throughout the United States and Canada.
Provided the Bruins get the good-to-go from Beacon Hill, they’ll unlock the doors to their Brighton practice facility and players in groups of up to six can start to shake out the kinks that have developed over the last three months of dormancy.
For those still keeping score, Sunday marked day No. 88 of life without the NHL. Three months. It only feels like the game lapsed back in the middle of the Bronze Era.
Where this goes from here, and how quickly it progresses, still remains in the invisible, deadly vise grip of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a perfect world (trigger the laugh track), all 24 clubs will begin formal training camps in the 5-7 days following July 4, ultimately leading to the return of real-life games, in real empty buildings, on or about Aug. 1.
Such was the aspirational return-to-play plan outlined by the NHL, in concert with the Players’ Association, back on May 26. In the near two weeks since, substantive updates have been fewer than Bruce Shoebottom hat tricks, which speaks, in part, to the complexity of making such an ambitious, unprecedented scheme go from drawing board to ice sheet.
“First and foremost, players have to feel safe about going back,” noted agent Matt Keator, longtime representative of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “I think they realize nothing is 100 percent risk free. So if they feel safe, based on the protocols put in place, and how it’s all executed ... it all moves forward, cautiously.”
That said, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union boss Donald Fehr this past week were still in the back and forth of hammering out details, financial and otherwise, of reawakening the business. Money, as always, remained a huge talking point. It could become the sticking point that keeps the game sidelined.
Players did not receive their final checks of the regular season, which was formally canceled May 26. That frozen money now must be factored into the forever-contentious issue of salary escrow, and how that affects settling the books in 2019-20 and how escrow will be framed for seasons to come. We’ve seen too often how fast, how far parsing the dollars can go into the hand basket between these sides.
Provided the dollars get divvied up to everyone’s satisfaction, and games do resume around Aug. 1, then Round 1 of elimination play — with four best-of-five-game series in the East and West — would lead to a traditional Round-of-16 tournament starting around the third week of August.
The Bruins, remember, will be one of eight teams (four per conference) dealt a bye for that preliminary play-in round. Instead, they’d face off in a non-elimination round-robin tourney, playing one game apiece against Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia. It’s possible they’ll hold serve as the No. 1 seed in the conference, but they also could slip to No. 4. The same for the Blues out West.
One former team executive’s view of the contrived round-robin format among the top four clubs: “Criminal.” We’ve eliminated his appropriate adjective in deference to a PG audience.
If all of that first stage can be accomplished, the traditional Round-of-16 tournament — all series best-of-seven — is targeted to wrap up in early October. That part of the calendar, of course, is traditionally reserved for the start of the next regular season. Instead, it’s now penciled in for the annual Booing of Bettman as the commish hands over the Stanley Cup.
Again, a reminder: Everything here assumes there are no health hitches. This is one gargantuan undertaking.
At minimum, each of those 24 teams will arrive to play in August with some 35 personnel (players, coaches, trainers, equipment guys, management, etc). The numbers winnow down by a one-third very quickly at the conclusions of the play-in tournament. But still, the league is attempting to gather some 840 workers, divide them in two hub sites, and then trim back the numbers over two-plus months with everyone still standing happy and healthy when the Cup winner is crowned.
You betcha. What are the odds nothing backfires?
Think back to days of yore with maybe a throng of 60 skaters on an outdoor patch of ice for a robust afternoon of town hockey. Could the best puck wizard out there lug the puck end to end through 60 skaters, keep possession, and tuck home the goal? Maybe, if the kid lugging the puck was Bobby Orr. Otherwise, count on some disruption in the neutral zone.
If the players indeed escape healthy, all of the above leads to an offseason encompassing most of October, November, and December.
The draft, normally held in late June, would be the first order of business., followed soon (Nov. 1?) by free agency. Training camps, normally starting in early September, also would move ahead by at least 90 days to mid-December.
The new season of 2020-21 most likely lifts off with the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. The site: Target Field, Minneapolis, the city turned epicenter of racial unrest two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the league’s vision remains fixed on all clubs playing 82 games in 2020-21. If so, a Jan. 1 start would set next year’s playoff cycle in motion at the start of July with a September finish. So for the moment, the idea that we’ll ever see regular-season games again in October and November appears to be vanishing. Unless the virus has other things in mind.
DeBoer suddenly looks Golden
Alain Vigneault (Flyers), Rick Bowness (Stars), and Peter DeBoer (Golden Knights), three of the eight coaches with byes when the postseason begins, were all first-year coaches behind their respective benches in 2019-20.
Vigneault was hired after last season as part of Chuck Fletcher’s remodeling of the Broad Streeters.
Bowness, who had a one-year tenure as Boston bench boss (1991-92), came aboard in Dallas when Jim Montgomery was abruptly dismissed in December.
DeBoer, canned earlier in the season by San Jose, took over the Knights upon the astonishing removal of Gerard Gallant in January, only 18 months after the latter led the first-year franchise to the Cup Final. Not much equity in a Cup run, is there?
The sample size was less than two months, but DeBoer’s impact in the desert was powerful. The Knights were poking along at 24-19-6 (.551) when GM Kelly McCrimmon ditched Gallant, and DeBoer rallied them to 15-5-2 (.727) prior to the lockdown, slotting Vegas into the No. 3 spot in the conference behind the Blues and Avalanche.
As the NHL’s Midsummer Madness approaches, no telling who’ll best shake the March-April-May hibernation. But the initial traction under DeBoer could indicate the Knights have a shot at reaching their second Final in their first three years of existence.
DeBoer placed a renewed emphasis on team-wide attention to defense. He also tweaked his top trios, moving William Karlsson between primo wingers Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty to shape a formidable No. 1 unit.
McCrimmon then came up big at the trade deadline, flipping backup goaltender Malcolm Subban to the Blackhawks for Robin Lehner, along with adding defenseman Alec Martinez from the Kings and center Nick Cousins from the Canadiens.
“They addressed their three areas of need,” noted Dave Goucher, the superb ex-Bruins radio voice who left here three summers ago to launch his TV career in Vegas. “They solidified the goaltending. They needed a top-four defenseman and then someone to solidify their top nine forwards.”
DeBoer quickly placed the 6-foot-4-inch Lehner in a straight rotation with franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Swedish-born stopper went 3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA and .940 save percentage. It’s rare these days, but DeBoer could keep the rotation right through the playoffs, something he couldn’t consider with Subban (tottering along at 9-7-3, 3.18, .890 prior to his exit).
Meanwhile, Gallant remains perhaps the most qualified coach still looking for his next gig (honorable mention in this category to Peter Laviolette). Three potential landing spots for both: Detroit (where Gallant was once a teammate of GM Steve Yzerman), New Jersey, and the expansion franchise Seattle Original 32’s.
FIRST AMONG EQUALS
Cassidy wins the top spot
The Bruins a year ago were in St. Louis to play Game 6 of the Cup Final (Sunday, June 9) and less than two weeks later Don Sweeney was named GM of the Year at the annual awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas, which just began to reopen The Strip on Friday, will not host this year’s awards ceremony. No telling just yet how the league will handle the gala.
If the Cup indeed gets handed out in October, an awards show of some scope could be a valuable marketing tool in the dog days of November and December. If the league’s grand attempt at a restart falls flat, the show could end up just another 2019-20 casualty, award winners to be filed into the dusty annals of digital history in a paperless world.
Bruce Cassidy should be a slam dunk for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. His Bruins went a league-best 44-14-12 this season. Of all the moves Sweeney has made since taking the job in 2015, putting Cassidy in charge remains his best.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Cassidy owns the best points percentage over the last four seasons, when compared with those who coached at least 250 games across that same period.
Cassidy, promoted to replace Claude Julien in February 2017, has worked 261 games and banked 68.2 percent of the available points. Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper ranked second (67.6), followed by the Islanders’ Barry Trotz, ex- of the Capitals (64.6).
Dealing solely in percentage of wins, Cooper (63.6) held a slight edge over Cassidy (61.7), followed again by Trotz (59.6).
|G||W||L||OTL||Pt Pct.||Win Pct.|
TV may get up close and personal
The absence of fans filling the stands possibly will prompt the NHL and its TV partners to build some bold new looks into broadcasts. Truth is, other than the sensational enhancement of HDTV in the new millennium, the look of hockey broadcasts has remained static for decades.
Here in the Hub of Hockey, the on-air talent and graphics have changed, but the look and structure of the broadcast is not unlike what we watched 25-plus years ago when the inimitable Fred Cusick and Derek Sanderson were the voices in the booth.
Ken London was the producer/director of those TV38 broadcasts for 10 years, starting in the mid-1980s. Given that the stands will be empty, he wonders if the glass can be removed, allowing for eye-level placement of cameras in the first few rows of loge seats.
“Much like the camera NBC uses for track and field at the Summer Olympics,” noted London, who these days works for Last Minute Productions in Needham. “The camera is on a track, and it runs right along with the athletes.”
So, if Charlie McAvoy sees the chance for a bold rush up ice, the camera can pick him up behind his net and then ride along all the way up the ice as he stickhandles and attempts to avoid checks.
“I think you could have something that’s a unique perspective there,” said London. “It would truly be a fan’s-eye view, a few feet lower than the top of the glass, where some cameras are positioned now — similar cameras sometimes, a cable tracking players on the ice, but they’re higher. Provided they don’t think the glass is needed for safety or tactical purposes, those shots could be dynamic.”
The absence of cheering, clapping, and yelling from the stands — the ambient sounds that fill all TV sports — could prompt the league and broadcast partners to fill buildings will noise. Your faithful puck chronicler, long on his disdain for the overpowering audioporn that fills many NHL arenas, can’t wait to experience the creative ways they pump up the volume. Should be a blast. At least at home, the viewer can turn down the sound, seek shelter from the storm.
Ideally, with buildings empty, broadcast partners instead will open their microphones to the unique sounds of the game — such as pucks striking stickblades on tape-to-tape passes, big hits along the boards, skateblades scraping the ice, referees barking orders (“Move the puck!”), hollering among players and coaches (ready that mute button!), the grunts and groans of goalmouth scrums.
The empty stands, reminded London, will eliminate one industry bugaboo: camera shots obstructed by exuberant fans at key moments.
“You’ll never get that annoying guy who jumps up just as a goal is being scored,” he said. “Or that shot that gets ruined in the last 15 seconds when everyone stands up and blocks the camera. We don’t see that as much as we used to, but it still happens. And trust me, for the people in the [broadcast] truck, that’s a killer.”
Sound of wedding bells
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, ex- of Mother Globe, posted a delightful feature about the parking lot at the Honda Center, home of the Anaheim Ducks, being repurposed in recent weeks as a drive-thru wedding chapel.
No fewer than 2,600 couples, deterred from getting to their respective churches on time by the pandemic, exchanged vows in a corner of the tarmac lot that typically accommodates some 4,000 parking spots (roughly the size of the entire West End and a slice of the North End).
The good folks at the arena scrounged up three ticket booths from local fairgrounds to construct the chapel. Eager couples booked their service times, arrived in their vehicles, and waited in line as if to enter a car wash. Hold the wax and kiss the bride!
Provided no glitches (like, say, an overheated Studebaker conking out in line), the starry-eyed couples were in and out of there in about the time it takes to serve a major penalty.
Logged on the officiate’s game sheet: five minutes for matrimony.