Less than a week before its season is set to begin, the NHL already is dealing with COVID-19 complications. The Dallas Stars’ season opener was pushed back to Jan. 19, at the earliest, after six players and two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.
For Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, it drove home the inevitable reality that the year will be challenging as teams figure out ways to push through games with the lingering risk of the virus.
“If enough players or personnel were to test positive, what are the options to the team?” Cassidy said. “Do you have to play no matter what? I can’t see games being forfeited. I would assume you would look to reschedule down the road. And it’s a compressed schedule as is, so that is going to be a challenge. But sounds like Dallas has done that.”
The Stars were scheduled to open on the road against the Florida Panthers on Jan. 13. They were planning to open American Airlines Arena to fans at 30 percent capacity. Instead, they’ve shut down training camp while the players and staff who tested self-isolate.
While the NHL was able to complete the 2019-20 season safely in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, attempting to get through a 56-game season with teams playing only division opponents will be more daunting.
“For us in the bubble, once you’re in there was going to be difficult to test positive because everyone in there was negative,” Cassidy said. “So you basically have to bust out or someone would have to slip through the cracks getting in there. I think they did a real good job with that. This is different.”
The unpredictability of the virus makes it that much more important for team members to be cautious about who they come in contact with, Cassidy said.
“You’ve just got to be extra careful for the next, I guess it could be just as much as six months unless there is a vaccine situation that allows you to open up a little bit,” he said. “But for us, that’s the message to the guys is a little bit of self-discipline to limit situations that would allow you to be in contact with people that, A, you don’t know, and B, in indoor spaces that are crowded. But again, you can be as vigilant as you want, and sometimes your kids might bring it home and what are you going to tell a person that’s your family?”
As far as the ins and outs of the Bruins’ contingency plans should an outbreak occur, Cassidy said general manager Don Sweeney had those answers. The year will come down to controlling what they can, following protocols, and hoping for the best, Cassidy said.
“That’s all you can do,” Cassidy said. “And let’s keep our fingers crossed that our players and our coaches and anybody in hockey ops does the right thing. And then gets a little bit lucky because sometimes you do the right things, you can still contract the virus. So that’s the message to the players.”
Cassidy liked the game-readiness of his team in Friday’s scrimmage, noting the puck battles were fierce and included several heavy, clean hits. “We’ve got to get used to that,” he said. “Glad to see that today without any casualties.”
Brad Marchand and Chris Wagner, who compete no matter what, got into a shoving match in which Marchand’s helmet was knocked off. Marchand also had stickwork for youngsters who stopped him defensively, Urho Vaakanainen and Jack Studnicka.
Studnicka, who is likely to start the season filling in for David Pastrnak on the Marchand-Patrice Bergeron first line, was not with Marchand on Friday because he was taking shifts as a penalty killer.
The Bruins drilled their special teams for the first time this camp. The first power-play unit (without the injured Pastrnak) took its initial reps with new quarterback Matt Grzelcyk. Cassidy termed them “crisp, for our first look.” David Krejci remained in Pastrnak’s spot in the left circle, with Bergeron in the bumper and Marchand working the net-front. Charlie Coyle was stationed on the right wall.
Charlie McAvoy ran the point on the second unit, which had newcomer Craig Smith in the slot (bumper), the spot he occupied for several years in Nashville. Jake DeBrusk, who has played net-front during his stints on the first unit, was in the shooter’s circle, opposite Ondrej Kase. Nick Ritchie manned the net-front position.
DeBrusk had a pair of goals off the rush during scrimmage action. He batted a rebound past Jaroslav Halak off a shot from the trailing Grzelcyk (a chance set up by good decisions from Krejci and Kase on the entry), and found the twine with a low, deflected shot off another Krejci setup.
Cassidy hopes DeBrusk, entering his fourth year in the league, will take the security from his second contract (two years, $7.35 million) and turn it into a productive season.
“We believe in him,” Cassidy said. “I hope now he recognizes he needs to be a more consistent performer. He might not score every night, or make plays. He’s going to have some off nights. But he has to recognize that ‘I’m a Boston Bruin that’s been in the league and they’re relying on me to be more consistent.’ ”
Cassidy, known to tinker with his lines, said he wants to keep the DeBrusk-Krejci-Kase trio together all season ... Kevan Miller has the upper hand on Connor Clifton as No. 3 right defenseman. “Real happy with his progression this week,” Cassidy said. “He looks great.” Clifton would be first in if Miller, who has not played in a game since April 4, 2019, needs a rest. Miller will be a crucial piece of the Zdeno Chara-less penalty kill.