There is nothing normal in NHL training camps these days. The timing of them is strange. What teams are preparing for is a competition and setting unlike any NHL event before it. Injuries are being dealt with differently than usual. We’re in a strange new world.
Get used to all of it.
As NHL camps continue into their second week and exhibition games in the two hub cities near, we’re now less than two weeks away from real games starting again. After four months off, it’s hard to believe we’re almost back again. And it’s coming fast.
Here are a few notes and observations on what happened at various NHL camps over the weekend…
MAPLE LEAFS TEST OUT THEIR BIG, BIG LINE
It’s not as though we’d expect the Maple Leafs to start Game 1 of their play-in series against Columbus by running out a line of John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, but we were reminded that, when things get tough, coach Sheldon Keefe is willing to turn to that combination.
The Maple Leafs had another scrimmage at their practice facility Sunday, starting the game at noon to match one of the hub city game times. Everything about this is strange, from a training camp in mid-summer, to prepping for August playoff games played at unusual times of the day, so conditioning for this new normal is a goal all coaches across the league are trying to accomplish.
And so, as the Leafs try to replicate a game atmosphere, it was telling that Keefe used his “All-Star Game line,” as Tyson Barrie called it.
If you close your eyes and listen to Matthews talk about it, you might feel as though he was discussing a real game, too.
“We’re pretty familiar with each other,” Matthews said. “We played together sporadically throughout the season on the power play, so obviously they’re two special players and fun guys to play with. I thought our first period wasn’t bad, wasn’t great. I thought the second and third we started to control the puck better and have more time on attack.”
Now part of the reason why the Leafs tried this on the weekend was that winger Zach Hyman, Matthews’ usual linemate, was deemed unfit to play. Keefe, however, wasn’t overly concerned about Hyman’s status for when real games get going.
“I’ve used them at different times in a game,” the coach said of the Matthews-Marner-Tavares line. “I suspect it’s something I’d want to go back to at different times. Here now there’s a chance for us to get them some reps. A particular opportunity arises with Hyman coming out and being unfit to come and play today so we wanted to use that chance to mix things up and try some different things.”
In all, Team Matthews beat Team Andersen a combined 11-2 in two weekend games, including a 5-0 decision on Sunday. Before you start worrying about what this means for Frederik Andersen, though, remember that he was facing most of Toronto’s top shooters in these scrimmages. Yes, they’re trying to find some level of normalcy here, but Andersen will have more overall support when the real puck drops.
SIDNEY CROSBY MISSES PRACTICE A SECOND TIME
One benefit to starting up again four months after pausing the season is that most teams will be almost completely healthy. However, most players have also been off the ice that long and now that they have to come back and ramp up to game speed in such a short time, there is certainly a risk of injury that is higher than normal.
So there was at least some concern on Sunday when Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby missed another practice. Crosby left Saturday’s scrimmage in the second period, but of course, the league’s injury disclosure protocols during these times makes it hard to determine exactly what is bothering Crosby and how serious it is. Get used to hearing a lot of “unfit to play” verbiage because that’s all coaches can say about any kind of injury these days.
The stakes are always higher when someone of Crosby’s ilk is missing time — if he had to sit out some, or all, of their series against Montreal it would certainly increase the Canadiens’ chances. However, it’s probably too early to start worrying about Crosby. According to Seth Rorabaugh of Trib Live: “A team source indicated Crosby’s departure from Saturday’s scrimmage was a precautionary measure for an undisclosed ailment.”
Without any more information available to us, all we can do is keep a sharp eye on Pittsburgh practice this week, and look for Crosby’s return.
TEAMS TRYING TO REPLICATE GAME ATMOSPHERE IN UNUSUAL RESTART
Speaking of scrimmages, we’re seeing a bunch of them occur across the league, but rather than being strictly informal and loose, most are attempting to create the kind of strange environment teams will play these Stanley Cup Playoffs in.
Referees are often on the ice, though it’s a role filled by a team employee or coach after the Maple Leafs were asked by the league to not bring in outside officials last week.
In Calgary, Craig Conroy donned the stripes Sunday night. St. Louis had Steve Ott and Marc Savard do the job.
Just as Toronto started a game at noon to match up with a new game time, Calgary’s Sunday night scrimmage began at 8:30 local time, which is one time slot that will be used in the Edmonton hub. Music was pumped in and, aside from the jarring look of an empty arena, it had a game-like feel to it.
For the Flames, their biggest storyline in training camp so far has been Johnny Gaudreau‘s absence from the top line. Injury disclosure rules have clouded exactly what was behind the decision to have Gaudreau skating with a separate group to start camp, but swirling speculation forced GM Brad Treliving to defend his star on Friday, and caution against guessing what’s going on these days.
“The groupings we have today on the ice are 100 per cent not conditioning issues or because anyone is in trouble or done anything wrong,” Treliving said. “Quite the contrary. We couldn’t be more happy with the conditioning levels they came to camp in.
“Rumours are part of the business, and we don’t address every one of them, but it’s gotten to the point where I felt I need to defend my players.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that speculation won’t linger. There are many who believe that if the Flames disappoint again in these playoffs, and if that top line underwhelms after combining for just five points in last season’s five-game loss to Colorado, that significant change could follow in the off-season. Naturally, Gaudreau’s name is tied to that speculation as well.
But as important as it is for Calgary’s top line to click right away in a five-game series, the Flames are also built with sandpaper and we know come playoff time — when fewer penalties are called and goals occur — that this element takes on greater significance. So in that sense, it was certainly positive to see those in the building note how the line of Milan Lucic, Sam Bennett and Dillon Dube were standing out.
There’s not much time to ramp up the intensity to playoff levels and there’s no telling how the new normal way of preparing and playing games will effect teams and, to a greater degree, individuals. The Flames will need their muscle just as much and just in case there’s any lingering doubt about how truly prepared everyone will be, it probably won’t take long to heighten the intensity to playoff levels when the Flames play provincial rival Edmonton in their one exhibition game next Tuesday. That game will also be an 8:30 p.m. local start.
“It felt the same a bit, but at same time not the same time at all,” Gaudreau said after Sunday’s scrimmage.
SCARY THOUGHT (FOR OPPOSSING TEAMS): HAS MCDAVID GAINED A STEP?
Just in case you were wondering if Connor McDavid was at all rusty, here’s Riley Sheahan describing how the Oilers captain has looked at camp: “It almost looked like he’s gained a step during this whole time.”
Yeah, @cmcdavid97's back.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 19, 2020
WILL COLUMBUS GET ANDERSON BACK?
One year removed from a 27-goal season, Columbus’ Josh Anderson struggled to just a single conversion in 2019-20 — a regular season he played just 26 games in largely due to injury.
Anderson underwent shoulder surgery in early March, which was expected to sideline him four-to-six months. That timeline, of course, could put him back in Columbus’ lineup before long. Over the weekend, the team activated him to its 34-man lineup.
When Anderson is healthy, the six-foot-three, 222-pound winger is a force and the kind of goal scoring power forward who can be a matchup nightmare. His is an element the Blue Jackets could sorely use, too. Columbus ranked 27th in goal scoring this season and, playing against a high-powered offence like Toronto, that could become a real problem. But if Anderson can return and provide the kind of impact he did to Columbus’ lineup a year ago, he’ll add a factor that could cause problems for the Leafs.