NHL training camps, the first heartbeat of the 2020-21 season, were pegged to open Tuesday, but that was the target date set back in May and June, in the weeks leading to what turned out to be the league’s well-executed playoff experiment inside the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles.
Things have changed. Not for the better.
COVID-19 is back, ever more voracious in North America than it was over the summer, and it is now the rabid, mangy dog wagging whatever hope the NHL has of doing business again in the near future as the world’s best hockey league.
Even before the Lightning clinched the Stanley Cup Sept. 28 (the good ol' bubble days), the NHL still had late December/early January penciled in as the season’s start. Thus the preliminary Nov. 17 training camp date.
At this hour, and likely quite a few more, the league has yet to reveal as much as a preliminary return-to-play plan. Hopes were, as the end of the week approached, that Gary Bettman and his Lords of the Boards would offer some guidance, definitive or otherwise, but no dice and no ice there, or from the NHL Players' Association.
The COVID-related death total breached 10,000 in Massachusetts on Thursday and the United States number inched inexorably toward 250,000. Yes, the NBA still plans to forge ahead amid the protracted horror, and commissioner Adam Silver is sticking to his Dec. 22 start date. But for now the NHL, with its roster rank-and-file roughly double that of the NBA, fails to see a clear, realistic option for an imminent return to play.
“Anyone who thinks they’ve got a handle on when this gets going is kidding themselves and everyone else,” said one prominent player agent. “No one knows. Some of these [owners] — not a lot, but some — think it would be better to shut it down completely and shoot for October. Others want to get going now. OK, great, but how?”
Some of the plans percolating of late have included a modified bubble approach that Bettman acknowledged this past week as a possibility. Players from an unspecified number of teams would congregate in a hub, play games against one another across 10-12 days, then return home for a week.
Such an approach would be akin to oil workers, particularly some in Canada, who commute from one end of the country to the other to work for stretches of 10-14 days, then return to their homes for a similar stretch, then return to the rigs for another 10-14.
Keep in mind, the NHL’s playoff bubble experiment lasted a total of 65 days, July 25-Sept. 28, and went off virtually without a hitch, albeit at a humongous financial cost that Bettman pegged in the “tens of millions of dollars.” But COVID numbers at the time were abating, both in the US and Canada, and teams were reduced from 24 to 2 over the course of the 10-week tournament. As time went on, it became a less treacherous skate across thin ice.
A regular-season bubble approach would have all 31 teams active, shuttling between hubs and home, and potentially doing it for months on end. All the while with the prospect that the pandemic will grow ever more deadly through the winter months. More skaters, longer time period, thinner ice.
Late this past week, word of another potential approach emerged, one more akin to the standard Major League Baseball model in which teams arrive in towns and typically play three or four games there before returning home or moving on to the next city. Think: Red Sox 12-day swing through Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle.
For example, the Bruins might face, say, the Penguins Friday and Sunday in Pittsburgh, then settle in the New York City area for two games each vs. the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils over the following 8-9 days. It would be a heavy game schedule (eight games in 11-12 days), but likely tolerable.
During the summer Stanley Cup playoffs, players and coaching staffs often remarked that the busy game schedule felt OK because there was no travel in and out of the bubble. In the regular-season model, travel wouldn’t be eliminated, but it would be reduced significantly. Teams also, again like baseball, would return for a 10-12 day homestand, with visiting teams staying in town to play two games before departing.
For the moment, everything remains all proposals, theory, and guess work. Though one thing seems settled: Bettman’s stated wish to play a standard 82-game season — something he was adamant about in May and June — has turned into a pipe dream.
Right now, if games could get going in mid-January, a 60-game schedule would be ambitious, concluding in mid-May at the earliest. A 48-game schedule, ending in late April, would appear the best model, allowing the four rounds of playoffs to end prior to July 1. Of course, 48 is the very number the sides settled on when returning from the lockouts of 1994-95 and 2012-13. Standard scheduling allows for roughly 2.2 days between games.
As for the issue that is top of the mind for many fans, particularly loyal season ticket-holders: What of people in the stands?
Again, the stuff of dart boards. Bettman’s mantra is to remind one and all that how the season begins won’t necessarily be how it ends. Which means the league may be forced to keep stands empty to start, based on local and federal laws in the US and Canada, and then be able to roll in fans provided conditions improve, be it because the virus has abated naturally or a vaccine has allowed for the ticket wickets to open wide.
For now, we are left with status quo, a slow, depressing crawl in the dark. For many in North America, especially here in the Northeast, hockey forever has been the long winter’s coping mechanism, the escape to be found on TV or radio or in newspaper accounts (you, dear reader!). It made short daylight hours easier to tolerate, snow in the driveway a wee bit less of a lift, and the steaming, curative elixir of hot chocolate all the more potent.
Buckle up, skate your lane, please stay healthy, and wait for better days to arrive. Oh, and keep your distance. If it helps, imagine everyone out there is wearing a Rangers or Canadiens sweater.
Chara waiting on deal, and Bruins need him
For the moment, the Bruins remain without a captain, albeit with Zdeno Chara still technically the old man in the “C”.
However, Chara, 43, remains an unrestricted free agent and this is the longest stretch in his storied career that he has not had a deal in place for the upcoming season (if).
According to Big Z’s agent, Matt Keator, other clubs have inquired about signing Chara, who is still in town with wife and kids and remains committed to striking an extension with Bruins GM Don Sweeney.
“Don has been very communicative throughout the process,” said Keator, Chara’s agent from even before the Trencin Tower of Power signed here in 2006. “Once we find out the format of the coming season, Z will be in more of a position to make a decision for himself and his family.”
Sweeney still has some $6.6 million in his cap wallet — per puckpedia.com — a portion of it earmarked to re-sign restricted free agent Jake DeBrusk (no arbitration rights). If DeBrusk lands upward of $3 million a year, that should leave enough to bring back Chara, who banked $3.5 million last year ($2 million base plus bonuses).
Chara still has much to offer, both as Charlie McAvoy’s partner at even strength and his equally steady work on the penalty kill. Factor in his work ethic, and his willingness to act essentially as a player-coach, and an extension is a no-brainer.
The issue for Sweeney, beyond the financial piece, is whether he believes it’s time to go full immersion on prospect Jakub Zboril (risky), or go shopping in the open market for someone younger. Zboril alone would not be a candidate to replace Chara’s minutes (average 21:01, second to McAvoy’s 23:10). It’s also difficult to envision him at No. 1 left D, based what he has shown in his three seasons at AHL Providence.
If Chara is not back, the “C” inevitably would go to Patrice Bergeron, who is now 35 (recount, please!) and with a reasonable shot at 1,000 career points (869).
Bergeron has two seasons left on the deal he signed in 2013. It would be a fitting tribute for Bergeron to carry the “C", and forever to have that part of his legacy here in the Hub of Hockey. He has been ready/fit for that duty for more than a decade. It’s only hard to envision it coming now at a time when the Bruins very much could use Chara back on the job.
Update on teams that did not make playoffs
Once camps get the green light, the seven clubs that didn’t make the playoff/bubble cut are expected to open 7-10 days earlier than the rest of the pack.
The Segregated Seven: Anaheim, Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Ottawa, and San Jose.
Here’s a cursory look at some of the improvements made by each franchise in hopes of making their way back to the playoffs:
▪ Anaheim — Added ex-Boston University defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (three years/$11.7 million), fresh off his Cup win/rehab tour with Tampa Bay … Selected point-getting blue liner Jamie Drysdale No. 6 in the October entry draft.
▪ Buffalo — Surprised the free agent market with a one-year get of Taylor Hall ($8 million), ideally to ride with Jack Eichel on the No. 1 line. The gamble is more on Hall’s part … Selected right winger Jack Quinn, 52 goals last season with OHL Ottawa, with the No. 8 pick.
▪ Detroit — Still in deep repair under the watch of GM Steve Yzerman. Lost out on landing No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere (to the Rangers), took a one-year/$1 million shot on Bobby Ryan, who departed the Senators as a free agent … Acquired veteran Rangers defenseman Marc Staal … Fell to No. 4 in lottery and grabbed Swedish left winger Lucas Raymond.
▪ Los Angeles — Swapped with Chicago to bring in Swedish defenseman Olli Maatta … Kings hope their big get is 6-foot-4-inch center Quinton Byfield, the No. 2 pick in the draft. He has the size and skill package to be legit No. 1 power pivot and a perfect working model ahead of him in Anze Kopitar.
▪ New Jersey — Former Bruins forward Tom Fitzgerald was permanently installed as GM over the summer. He bought out ex-Boston College goaltender Cory Schneider and hired on ex-Blackhawks No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford … Added Swedish right winger Alexander Holtz (No. 7) in the draft … Still holding $17.2 million in spending cash, most pocket money in the league.
▪ Ottawa — Two picks among the top five in the draft and both will have a chance to make the varsity: German forward Tim Stutzle (No. 3) and defenseman Jake Sanderson (No. 5), the latter of whom was this year’s top pick, and top defenseman, from the US National Team Development Program … Picked up free agent right winger Evgenii Dadonov from Florida and swapped with the Ducks for veteran back liner Erik Gudbranson … Biggest addition of all: swap for ex-Penguins No. 1 goalie Matt Murray. Should be the most improved of the Segregated Seven.
▪ San Jose — Not a lot of change. Swapped with the Wild for former Bruins prospect Ryan Donato up front … Brought back Patrick Marleau, though lost his longtime pal, Joe Thornton, to the Maple Leafs … Dealt with the Wild for goalie Devan Dubnyk, who could push Martin Jones for the No. 1 job.
The Oilers added Dominik Kahun, a childhood teammate of Leon Draisaitl in Germany, into their forward mix via free agency. A left winger with looks in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, he could get a shot on the first line with Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian. Once they do get to camp, the Oilers will have at least 16 NHL-caliber forwards on the roster and a promising prospect in Tyler Benson (No. 32 pick in 2016 draft). Too many men on the ice … Another of the NHL’s return-to-play possibilities would include a temporary realignment and the creation of an All-Canadian (seven teams) division. It would mitigate all issues around the current border restrictions … Gary Bettman’s view of diminished TV ratings during the summer Cup run: 1. With no fans in the building, there was a lack of ambient energy in the broadcast; 2. It’s harder to recruit casual hockey fans in the summer. Both good points. To add a third: Games returned after a five-month pause, which left 2019-20 story lines fractured and made for a cold restart in the narrative. Which is also to say, the regular season matters … Ryan Strome (Rangers), Brendan Lemieux (Rangers), Roope Hintz (Stars) and Mackenzie Weegar (Panthers) all came to contract terms without going through the messy, though sometimes necessary, arbitration process. The group will average $3.15 million. Hintz, whose cap figure is precisely $3.15 million, could be the pick of the litter. Big (6-3/220) and a burner, another gem from the 2015 draft (pick No. 49). He’ll be 24 Tuesday. Size and skill to pop in 30-35 goals a year … Good pal Bob Ryan noted in his Globe column this past week that perhaps no one in sports could match the longevity Tommy Heinsohn enjoyed as a Celtics presence, which began in the fall of 1956 and continued to his death — spanning 64 years of service in various roles. A different character, for sure, but John Bucyk was 22, the same age Heinsohn was upon arrival, when he came to the Bruins in 1957, and the Chief has remained on the payroll ever since. Once fans are allowed back inside the Garden, Bucyk, 85, plans to resume his ambassador’s role on game nights. Two guys. Same building(s). Total 127 years … The Panthers added Ulf Samuelsson to their coaching staff. Boston snowbirds in the Sunrise/Fort Lauderdale area with long memories likely will find other things to do with their disposable income. It was Samuelsson, then a member of the Penguins' back line, who put the dirty lick on Cam Neely in the 1991 playoffs, triggering the right winger’s long ordeal with quad and hip injuries … COVID-19 scrapped this weekend’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction, which would have had Marian Hossa, Jarome Iginla, Kevin Lowe, Kim St-Pierre, Doug Wilson, and Ken Holland (Builder) pulling on jackets and rings. The Hall announced late last month there will be no Class of 2021 elected. When all is back to normal, or close to it, the incoming class will be feted with all the trimmings in Toronto. Fingers and skate laces crossed.