The Calgary Flames opened up the first skate of their training camp today without its star player on the ice.
Mask-wearing media in the upper level of the Saddledome were abuzz over the absence of Johnny Gaudreau and a few other big names in the group of 24 for the first of two sessions.
Would he show up in the second group?
Alas, Gaudreau’s return was simply delayed a few hours by an odd decision to put him, Cam Talbot, Milan Lucic and Andrew Mangiapane with the remaining group of nine that still included two absences.
Shortly after assistant coach Martin Gelinas started putting the late session lads through the paces, the team issued a statement sure to become a daily staple around the league the next few months:
“Buddy Robinson and Dillon Dube were unable to participate today,” it read, establishing the league-mandated explanation for all absences moving forward to protect players’ privacy.
No more upper or lower-body talk, opening up daily chatter over whether absent players will ultimately appear as stats in the league’s weekly COVID-19 count.
“I have a feeling that’s going to come up, but once games and practices start happening, guys block shots and miss games,” said Matthew Tkachuk, when asked if he was prepared for the obvious whispers following even routine maintenance days.
“I know it’s human nature to speculate, but I’m going to advise people not to over-speculate. I was just made aware we’re not saying anything. That’s not my call. If I were to say anything it’s ‘don’t speculate.’”
Hard not to when the coach added this fascinating response when asked why the main and secondary groups had such unconventional looks.
“Circumstances that became apparent last week to us made it so that we had to split the groups the way you saw them today,” explained interim coach Geoff Ward of the setup, which he added could change on a daily basis.
“I can’t elaborate any more than that.”
Feel free to draw your own conclusions, which is exactly what everyone in and around the league will do daily moving forward.
Monday’s absences around the league promised to be particularly glaring for obvious reasons, especially after Flames GM Brad Treliving said Sunday night it’s the leadup to their Edmonton sojourn on July 26 that has caused him to lose sleep.
“This is a big stretch for every team and you want to be as healthy as possible going into the hub cities,” said Tkachuk.
“I’m just being as smart as I can and eliminating stuff as much as possible.”
The organization is most certainly doing its best to do that with the long list of obvious precautions, including daily COVID-19 testing.
One coach, Jordan Sigalet, wore a mask on the ice, as he has Multiple Sclerosis.
All training staff and equipment personnel on the bench also wore face coverings, as did the Zamboni driver.
The media, which was relegated to the Saddledome’s upper level, had to wear masks, sign off on a health questionnaire and undergo a temperature check as part of screenings.
There will be no face-to-face interviews the rest of the season, as all communication between players and media will be via phone or Zoom.
The group of 52 people in the organization that will be part of the NHL’s bubble in Edmonton is being formed.
“I feel safer in our dressing room – the way our training and medical staff have cleaned it and set things up, they make you feel safe,” said captain Mark Giordano.
“Right now, you have to be smart and do as little as possible. The message from me and all the guys is try to stay home, and make sure we get to the hub city with our entire team healthy.”
On the ice they worked on the power play, penalty killing, zone coverage and used the first two sessions as a refresher.
Still, the takeaway on opening day was discussion of the two absent players, how it’s being handled by the league (teams aren’t allowed to comment on absences or testing results of any kind) and whether the number of players missing action will be as significant as it was in Pittsburgh where nine players missed opening day due to COVID-19 precautions.
“Yeah, it’s coming,” said Giordano of the speculation to follow every absence.
“Every day you’re going to have to deal with whether it’s an injury or Covid or something else. Guys that are not in, there’s going to be lots of speculation. It’s going to become sort of regular around the league for sure. As players all we can do is follow guidelines and protocols, and whatever they’re advising us to do we will do.”
It was hard to draw any conclusions from line combinations due to the grouping mishmash, but the fact that Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson were the only two defencemen in the second group may provide a hint in terms of who will replace Travis Hamonic alongside Hanifin on the second pairing.
Hamonic was the lone Flame to exercise his right to skip the playoffs, citing family reasons.
From first session
Quine – Monahan – Lindholm
Tkachuk – Backlund – Rieder
Ruzicka – Ryan – Czarnik
Froese – Gawdin – Phillips
Giordano – Brodie
Forbort – Gustafsson
Valimaki – Yelesin
Kylington – Stone
Extra – Mackey
Rittich, Zagidulin, Gillies
Gaudreau, Lucic, Rinaldo, Jankowski, Mangiapane, Bennett