Detroit – The NHL is another step closer to resuming its season.
The Detroit Red Wings and six other teams will be sitting out. But 24 teams can officially begin training camp Monday to begin working toward the NHL playoffs.
The training camps are Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return to Play protocols, with teams arriving in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto July 26.
The Eastern Conference playoffs will take place in Toronto and the West in Edmonton. Games are scheduled to begin Aug. 1.
The training camps will be welcomed by players who’ve held small groups skates since June 8. These will be interesting camps for players and coaches, who have plenty of issues to navigate.
Since the NHL season was paused on March 12 due to COVID-19, teams have largely been in hibernation. How they manage these next 10 days or so could have a big impact on how successful they will be in these playoffs.
Here are 10 key questions for this training camp phase:
►1. Will the players feel safe?
This, obviously, will be such a key question.
With the resurgence of the virus in so many parts of the country – though in part due to more testing – and with positive tests being reported in other sports, you have to believe some players will feel trepidation.
Players will be tested daily once they get to Edmonton or Toronto, but a small number of positive tests isn’t expected to derail this playoff tournament. Both sides want this thing to happen, as evidenced by the partnership developed through the process to hammer out the new CBA.
But there has to be some level of nervousness. Hockey is contact sport, players will be near each other on the benches, and who knows how secure these hubs will be.
These players are headed into an unknown – while trying to be at their best on the ice.
►2. Does everyone want to be there?
Sure, players voted for the return to play, and largely speaking, they have been enthusiastic about resuming this season.
But there are a some who have expressed reservations about returning, and you wonder how many there are in total and how that could affect the quality of this playoff tournament.
Players will be away from families for weeks and that could take a toll, as well.
Also, hockey players are known to be creatures of habit. They’re not used to playoff hockey in August. Mentally, will the buy-in to this playoff structure be totally there from players?
As of Sunday, six players had opted out of the playoffs, including former Red Wings defenseman Mike Green.
►3. What kind of shape are players in?
Players have now been skating in small groups for more than an month, so they should be in decent shape heading into training camp.
But, again, that is after not skating at all for months with most of North America closed off due to the pandemic and no ice rinks to skate on.
Don’t be surprised if groin pulls begin popping up soon on many teams, with muscles readjusting to skating.
►4. How healthy are players entering camp?
Teams like Pittsburgh, Tampa and St. Louis, each of whom had some significant injuries late in the regular season – Jake Guentzel (Pittsburgh), Steven Stamkos (Tampa), Vladamir Tarasenko (St. Louis) – will see their star players return.
That’s why these camps will be tricky for teams. How hard will coaching staffs push players who have been training at home, but not skating and probably not getting the quality of workouts they’d get at the arena?
►5. What will the pace of training camp be like?
Again, a delicate balance for coaching staffs.
Do coaches push players hard, knowing they haven’t been on the ice much at all these four months? Or do they pull back a bit, and gradually build up until the qualifying round?
It’s not an easy call. The common belief is maybe for an older team, you ease back a bit, but would that team get their conditioning and timing back in time to play meaningful games?
►6. Is there a possibility of over-coaching?
With so much time off, and so much time to prepare for next opponent, there’s a belief some coaching staffs might overload their teams with information.
There might be a delicate balance to navigate here, also. Do you keep on working with what was going well for you, and not tweak any systems?
Or with so much time off, and maybe in the case of lower-seeded teams that have nothing to lose, do those coaching staffs devise something new and try to pull off surprises?
Some of this might go hand in hand with how much pressure a coaching staff is under.
►7. Which teams could have benefited from the shutdown?
Tampa (3-6-1), Pittsburgh (3-7-0), Dallas (3-5-2) and the New York Islanders (2-4-4) are notable teams that were heading into the wrong direction when the season paused.
Pittsburgh and Tampa were dealing with injuries, and now they are healthy. Those months off should help physically and mentally.
Perhaps veteran teams such as Boston, St. Louis, Vegas, Pittsburgh, maybe even a Chicago, could have benefited from the time off. They could be mentally and physically re-charged and in a positive frame of mind heading into the playoffs.
►8. Can teams regain momentum?
All these teams have been off since March 12. Can the teams that were peaking at the right time when the season was paused regain that momentum?
One interesting team will be Philadelphia. The Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL when the season ended, having won nine of 10 games.
The Flyers have a nice blend of youth and experience and were playing with so much confidence. But you have to think four months off will have squashed that momentum.
►9. Can a darkhorse make a run at the Stanley Cup?
For some teams, this entire tournament can be a way to salvage what had been a disappointing season. Toronto (36-25-9), Florida (35-26-8), Nashville (35-26-8) and Calgary (36-27-7) are in this category.
And teams like Arizona, Chicago, Minnesota and Montreal weren’t even really in the playoff hunt. For those teams, this is an unexpected bonus and a chance to make a surprising run.
►10. Are Boston and St. Louis on a collision course to meet again?
It sure did appear that way before the season was paused. The 2019 Stanley Cup finalists were rolling, with St. Louis winning eight of its last 10 games and the Bruins seven of 10.
During the course of this season, these two teams again showed a mental and physical toughness and determination that was impressive.
Odds of winning the Stanley Cup for the 24 teams in the NHL playoffs, according to VegasInsider.com:
Boston Bruins, 13-2
Tampa Bay Lightning, 13-2
Colorado Avalanche, 8-1
Vegas Golden Knights, 8-1
Washington Capitals, 9-1
Philadelphia Flyers, 10-1
St. Louis Blues, 11-1
Dallas Stars, 15-1
Pittsburgh Penguins, 16-1
Edmonton Oilers, 23-1
Toronto Maple Leafs, 29-1
Calgary Flames, 35-1
Carolina Hurricanes, 35-1
Vancouver Canucks, 35-1
Arizona Coyotes, 43-1
Minnesota Wild, 43-1
Nashville Predators, 43-1
New York Islanders, 43-1
New York Rangers, 43-1
Florida Panthers, 55-1
Winnipeg Jets, 55-1
Columbus Blue Jackets, 65-1
Montreal Canadiens, 70-1
Chicago Blackhawks, 75-1