Storylines abound as NHL makes unprecedented summer return

Stephen Brunt looks at the impact the COVID-19 had on the world and what the return of sports means.

They have handed out the Stanley Cup on 101 different occasions, but never like this.

We have no frame of reference for what might happen when you throw 24 teams in the tournament and start with a sprint following a 142-day pause due to a pandemic. We don’t know what it will look and feel like to see playoff games staged in the middle of the summer inside empty arenas. We can’t possibly even guess how sequestering players inside tightly-controlled “secure zones” and significantly limiting their movements could affect how they perform in competition.

“We’ve kind of joked that it’s like going to Mars,” said Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA’s special assistant to executive director Donald Fehr. “No one’s ever been there.”

Finally, the Orion has landed and the most unpredictable tournament in NHL history begins Saturday with five games gloriously staggered from noon until deep into the night.

What makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs feel like a sugar high under normal circumstances is an intensity and unpredictability the other major sports should envy. Here? Now? Like this? All bets are completely off.

Will it even matter that last year’s finalists, Boston and St. Louis, were again the best teams during the regular season and seemingly poised for another long playoff run? Could youthful enthusiasm be an advantage given the challenging circumstances? Is this the year Tampa gets the final push up the mountain? Will there be any carryover for Philadelphia and Vegas, each of whom was red hot at the time of the pause? Can home ice be an advantage for either Edmonton or Toronto even while not getting full use of their own facilities? Could someone make it out of the qualifying round and become the first team in NHL history to win five series on the way to a championship?

The answers will come in a whirring blur.

Within 10 days, eight teams will already have been sent home and they’ll hold equal 12.5 per cent odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick in a second draft lottery to be held between playoff rounds.

This restart should be weird and wonderful and everything in between. It will certainly be memorable for everyone involved, too.

“None of us have ever been in a series where seven of the teams are staying in the same hotel and it’s like minor hockey where if the game in front of you runs a little bit long you’re kind of waiting for that game to end in overtime or what have you,” said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas.

“I never really envisioned looking overly forward to sitting in a rink and watching three games in the middle of August and spending your whole day watching, but NHL playoff hockey and the ability to sit in Scotiabank Arena and watch three games during the entire day is going to be pretty awesome.”

From the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to the Stanley Cup Final, livestream every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, blackout-free, on Sportsnet NOW.

HOME ICE

This was enough of a concern among managers that at one point in the process there was discussion about sending the Eastern Conference teams to the western hub while having the Western Conference teams come east.

Except that never made much sense for a made-for-TV event where the time-zone adjustment would make scheduling even more complicated than it already is.

And so the Maple Leafs are staying home in Toronto, while the Oilers remain grounded in Edmonton, albeit with none of the usual comforts. Players have moved into hotels just like everyone else and can only leave the secure zone under the same circumstances set out for all participants.

They will step foot in their own dressing rooms only for games where they’re designated the “home” team and get that assignment. In Toronto, the Leafs may have to get ready in a converted media room space at Scotiabank Arena or the Raptors dressing room. They’ll likely play at least one game against Columbus in the best-of-five qualifying round where the Blue Jackets are using their own room — just as Edmonton will see Chicago do at Rogers Place.

Strange times, indeed.

At least the Leafs and Oilers should be able to find some comfort in the overall familiarity. That notion will certainly gain some steam if Edmonton and/or Toronto find on-ice success this summer.

TAMPA’S TIME?

No NHL team has won more regular-season games than the Tampa Bay Lightning since the beginning of 2013-14.

No team has accumulated more points or heartache.

Tampa is “due” as much as anyone can be considered due in a 31-team league where winning a championship is so tough it reduces grown men to tears. And so it’s notable that the Lightning were one of just two teams to vote against this playoff format when it was brought to the NHLPA’s Executive Board in part because they felt disadvantaged as a top seed that skips the qualifying round.

“[We] felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs,” NHLPA rep Alex Killorn told The Athletic in May.

It hasn’t been a smooth run-up to the event, either, with the team’s practice facility having to be closed for a few days during Phase 2 because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests and captain Steven Stamkos a limited participant in training camp with a lower-body injury.

Still, the Lightning are a major threat. They fill the net and have elite players throughout their lineup. They’ve got skill, depth and experience.

And GM Julien BriseBois says “we’re going to embrace the suck and dance in the rain.”

FATIGUE FACTOR

It took until June 12, 2019 for St. Louis and Boston to determine a winner the last time the Stanley Cup was handed out.

Both looked more than capable of enduring the hard miles to challenge for it again. But how this layoff treats veteran teams is an open question: On one hand you’d expect the Blues and Bruins to benefit from the rest following the short summer, but they also boast rosters with plenty of fathers and family men who may be conflicted about jumping back into the grind in this manner.

Consider it one of the biggest unknowns for everyone involved in the NHL’s return-to-play plan: How deeply invested is each team?

St. Louis and Boston boast talented rosters with the hearts of a champion, but neither has achieved its prior success under the kind of conditions they’re about to be handed in the present.

YOUNG STARS

Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are back for just their second visit. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have reached the post-season in four straight years, but they’ve yet to experience the feeling of winning a series with the Leafs.

There is so much opportunity here for Generation Now/Next.

Not only have they got youth and enthusiasm on side, but it’s only a matter of time before their playoff impact matches what we’ve already seen in the regular season.

Why now not?

THE GOALIES

You don’t see many teams march their way to a championship without a solid performance in the crease. Yet seldom would a goalie ever jump straight into a playoff game with nothing more than one exhibition outing under his belt in the previous four-plus months.

That’s the task facing the league’s voodoo crew right now.

There are familiar names among the best of the playoff-bound bunch from this regular season: Boston’s Tuukka Rask (.929 save percentage), Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (.922), Dallas’ Ben Bishop (.920) and Vegas’ Robin Lehner (.920).

Behind them were Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom (.918) and Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen (.917), who posted career-best numbers.

But will any of that matter now?

In fact, you might make the case the biggest beneficiaries from the extended break are the goalies who shouldered the heaviest workloads this year: Hellebuyck and Montreal’s Carey Price (58 starts apiece), followed by Toronto’s Frederik Andersen (52), Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (52) and St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington (50).

While there isn’t much time for any of these men to find their rhythm, at least the bruises have long since healed. The minds should be fresh, too.

THE GRIND

It sounded strange to hear Dubas say his team’s goal was to win 19 games.

Gone are the days when it merely took 16 — at least for those competing in the qualifying round out of the gate.

That this entire tournament is scheduled to happen inside 65 days, and with teams playing back-to-back within a series, the grind will get real in a hurry. Even without the travel you typically see during the playoffs, rest and recovery will be paramount.

Depth will probably be more important than ever, too, which is why recent draft picks like Columbus’ Liam Foudy and Toronto’s Nick Robertson seem destined to find their way into the lineup at the end of the year where they played in the Ontario Hockey League and world junior tournament.

SAFETY AND TESTING

The NHL has hit a home run so far.

Just two positive tests since training camps began on July 13 and none since players and staff entered the bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto on July 26. That speaks to the effectiveness of the protocols in place and the buy-in from the athletes, who will each be tested daily until their teams are eliminated or the Cup is handed out.

But let’s not celebrate just yet — the virus can spread quickly and the NHL needs to avoid a major outbreak like the one that is currently threatening the Major League Baseball season.

The evidence suggests that the league and its players have created the conditions necessary to see this thing through. In fact, Schneider said: “There’s a very good chance that the guys are going to be safer in the bubble than they are in the normal circumstances at home.”

Let’s all hope they get through this safely.

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