31 Thoughts: Why 2020–21 NHL season is a step into the unknown

As the NHL season approaches, Sportsnet's crew from each Canadian NHL team walks you through the major storylines you need to know.

• Examining lasting legacy of past 10 months
• Could Canadian Division become permanent?
• What’s holding up deals for Barzal, other RFAs?

Never have I been so happy to hear, “I’m in the best shape of my life,” or read tweets about first-day-of-practice defensive pairs. It feels like the NHL’s been gone forever, and this training camp is a super-sized glass of Jolt Cola before an all-night study session.

What I don’t think we fully grasp is the sheer unpredictability of the upcoming season. The compressed schedule, expanded rosters, uncertain attendance, added obstacles to making moves and COVID itself all make for a recipe unlike any we’ve seen before.

There are teams that said, “There’s no point in spending any more than we have to, because, without fans in the arenas, it’s impossible to break even.” There are teams that said, “We’re going for it, because if we give up on this year, how will fans feel about buying tickets for next year?”

The East Division is brutal, a street fight almost every night. The North (Canadian) is exciting, full of talented but flawed teams — with Ottawa determined to show better than anticipated. The Central looks tiered: the Stanley Cup Champion, the runner-up, two teams who won a play-in round, two that didn’t, suddenly reeling Chicago and picking-itself-off-the-mat Detroit. The West is three heavyweights and who knows? The most unexpected playoff team in the NHL probably comes from there.

A bad start is almost impossible to overcome in an 82-game season, never mind a 56-gamer. From 2005–06 to 2018–19, just nine of 59 teams four points out on Nov. 1 made the playoffs. Stumble out of the gate, you’re doomed.

Sometimes, it’s hard to manufacture hate in the regular season. This year, with the same opponents, a baseball schedule, and a shortened season? It’ll be cooked up like mozzarella sticks in your air fryer.

Players saw what the flat cap did to free agency. You can’t afford a bad contract year. Some teams — particularly Montreal and Toronto at forward — have so many who could legitimately dress that you wonder how they are going to manoeuvre it all.

For the health of everyone involved, you hope COVID doesn’t wreak havoc on the players, coaches, executives, officials, arena workers … everyone. However, both Colorado and Nashville began camp with multiple players “unfit to practice.” The good news is the NBA’s positivity rate in its first round of training camp tests was close to 10 per cent, and has significantly dropped since. The bad news is that COVID is raging as the vaccine rolls out.

Monday, the NBA announced that all players who are dressed to play must wear a face mask until they enter the game. Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant was ordered to quarantine for seven days based on a contact-tracing exposure, even though he’d tested negative. We’re constantly adjusting. What we know now might not be true 20 minutes from now.

It’s possible that the lasting legacy of the past 10 months is a change in how the NHL markets itself and a new, more aggressive pursuit of revenues. As one governor said last month, “We have committees for everything, but we don’t have a Revenue Committee.”

Tuesday morning, the league announced that Discover, Honda, MassMutual and Scotiabank will be the name sponsors of the divisions for the 2020-21 NHL season:

There were rumours over the past couple of weeks the league was considering this path, but I didn’t believe them. Like it or not, we better get used to this sort of thing. The conservative days are done, and the doors are wide open. The only question: Is this a short-term thing to save revenues and jobs, or a permanent, new reality?

There’s certainly a feeling across the sport — league employees, teams, players, agents — that the shackles have to come off because circumstances demand it. You’ve seen the helmet ads; we’ll see how the on-ice, on-bench, and along-the-glass ads look. Small jersey ads can’t be far away. The outdoor games in Lake Tahoe are an excellent idea, but a break-even preposition in 2021. What we will see is if someone loves the idea enough to turn it into a revenue generator in the future.

A few executives and agents believe the Canadian Division should be given permanent consideration — that guaranteeing four of those teams a playoff spot and one a Final Four spot would drive up revenues and raise the cap. As a Sportsnet employee, sign me up. But I admit that, personally, I’m not crazy about anyone being guaranteed anything. However, as producer Matt Marstrom pointed out after Jeff Marek and I discussed it on this week’s podcast, Seattle’s arrival makes it more challenging from a numbers perspective.

I’m excited for this season. I’m excited to see how it will play out, and how the league changes because of what’s happened. It’s a step into the unknown, and we all take it together.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. One GM: “How are you going to make up rumours when quarantines make trades so hard?”

2. You could tell Patrik Laine had zero desire to answer questions about his future in Winnipeg — “I’m here, aren’t I? That’s the only thing I’m worried about right now.” — but I wouldn’t get too caught up in that. He’s blunt, but recognizes the reality.

Laine arrived in Winnipeg understanding it’s very possible he’s a Jet all season. If a trade is what he desires, his best option is to fill the net with pucks, and that’s what I’d expect him to do. I think Philadelphia considered it a few months ago, but backed away due to asset cost and salary. Laine is arbitration eligible for two more summers, then you’re buying UFA years. That’s a complicated contract in a flat-cap world. If Columbus believes it can get Laine to commit, that’s one to watch, eventually — assuming a trade can be worked out.

3. This week’s conspiracy theory: Did you know Pierre-Luc Dubois’s father, Eric, coaches in the Winnipeg organization? (He’s an assistant for the AHL Moose.)

4. The more I’ve learned about Dubois’s situation, the more he, his agent and the Blue Jackets deserve credit for keeping it quiet as long as they did. I couldn’t understand why Columbus was worried about an offer sheet at a time teams are strapped for cash, but one player explained it: “We knew [Dubois] was thinking of leaving, if he could.”

I’ve asked if the situation can be fixed, but there’s not a ton of optimism at this time. It wasn’t the negotiations, and several sources warned against putting it solely at the feet of John Tortorella. Dubois didn’t reveal much at his introductory media conference, but the aforementioned player said the feeling is Dubois wants “a bigger stage.” (In the NHL, that doesn’t always mean the biggest market.)

GM Jarmo Kekalainen held onto both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin as UFAs-to-be; no one’s expecting him to move quickly on Dubois.

5. Another team to keep an eye on in the short term: the Islanders. It’s a good omen that Mathew Barzal is there and took his physical. There’s not a lot of information when Lou Lamoriello is involved, but my sense is a long-term deal was not likely because of the team’s cap situation. The player and agent would likely use Mitch Marner and/or Mikko Rantanen as comparables, and New York can’t fit that right now. That takes us down to two- and three-year terms (3x$6M, maybe?). There’s optimism that it gets done, but the Islanders have to make room, too.

6. Matt Martin’s extension hasn’t been announced, but word is that it’s a bit of a surprise — reflective of the loyalty the Islanders feel to him. One player the Islanders have tried to move (with a sweetener) is Thomas Hickey. Half of the defenceman’s salary for this year is already paid via a bonus, and he’s got one more year at $2.5 million. Hickey’s been through a lot personally and professionally — I hope it works out for him.

7. Other RFA business includes Jesper Bratt (New Jersey); Luke Kunin (Nashville); Jack Roslovic (Winnipeg); Aleksi Saarela and Henrik Borgstrom (Florida). With the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, Charlotte, announcing it will not play this season, it is sensible those two players would stay in Europe. (Although, there is some question about whether Borgstrom returns to the organization.)

Roslovic has asked for a trade, and Kunin is in Nashville as the two sides grind away at his next deal.

Bratt, meanwhile, remains in Sweden. Simply counting the days makes it hard to see him starting the season on time between getting a visa and going through quarantine. That said, it’s always dicey writing about these, because things can change with one phone call. GM Tom Fitzgerald said team and player are “in constant communication,” which had been the case, but things have stalled. Not a ton of talk, and there’s a bit of a gap at this time.

8. Let’s look a little more at the AHL. Like Charlotte (Florida), Milwaukee (Nashville) and Springfield (St. Louis) announced Monday they will not play this season. The Checkers and Admirals made noises for some time that this would be their route, while the Thunderbirds made a more recent decision.

If your affiliate is five hours away from your NHL home base, a quarantine is necessary. That played a role in the Blues’ decision. They quickly made it public that their prospects will join Vancouver’s in Utica. Florida’s are expected to join Syracuse (Tampa Bay) and Nashville with Chicago (Carolina).

What wasn’t announced was a playoff structure. NHL clubs have made it very clear this season is more about development than competition. The post-season is not as big a priority for them.

9. Canadian participation (Belleville, Laval, Manitoba, Toronto) remains subject to the approval of local governments. It is expected that those teams will be asked to adhere to NHL-style protocols before permission is granted. It will be expensive, but these teams feel not playing is not an option. It’s also possible Ottawa and Montreal’s prospects move to their NHL arenas for the season.

10. While the NHL and AHL figured out this challenging process, many unsigned players (and their agents) stressed over their futures.

“We were very worried we wouldn’t find a job,” one agent said after getting a client signed.

I’d expect there will be a run on getting some vets signed. One who has taken a more zen-like approach, patiently waiting for an opportunity, is Nick Baptiste, who played last season in Toronto and Belleville.

11. An AHL rule change hurt Baptiste’s situation. Each team can dress five players who classify as “veterans,” with more than 260 pro games. (Baptiste is above 300.) But, to qualify for that status this season, you had to be 25 by last July 1. Baptiste hit that age in August, so he’s still what’s known as a “developmental player,” and teams will generally save those spots for younger prospects. But he’s determined not to have a negative attitude.

“It’s been a difficult time for a lot of guys,” he said Monday. “But I’ve used these nine months to benefit myself.”

How so?

“Understanding how quickly opportunity comes and goes, you recognize you have to be prepared for them as you get older. I’ve taken care of my body, and spent more time than normal on ice last summer. I had to work on in-game small-area stuff. I worked at length on quickness coming out of turns, honing on things like that.”

He moved back home in the Ottawa-area with his mother and younger brother, Isaiah, an OHL Sarnia draft pick who played last year for the Nepean Raiders. He skated with a group that included Erik Karlsson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

“I focus on what I can control,” Baptiste said. “The last couple of years hadn’t gone the way I wanted…. I can control how I approach that. I’m prepared and excited.”

12. As Canada and the U.S. prepare for a World Junior Gold Medal showdown on Tuesday night, Baptiste added he’s been energized by something on the wall of his mother’s home: a photo of him holding the Canadian flag in celebration after he and his teammates beat the Americans 3–2 in the 2013 Under-18s. Baptiste had eight points in seven games during that event, including an assist on Frederik Gauthier’s gold-medal winner.

13. I think Montreal really wanted to add Mike Hoffman, but not even Simone Biles could pull off those cap gymnastics.

14. Joe Thornton starting with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews was part of the pitch to the future Hall of Famer. Thornton and Matthews have spent a lot of time together since they arrived in Toronto (while adhering to proper protocol).

15. Brett Ritchie is the mystery PTO possibility for Calgary.

16. Ottawa’s moves are interesting. There’s zero doubt they will be harder to play against and more competitive. They didn’t want to hand roster spots to their prospects, because that’s too easy. What I’m curious to see is if any of them see their routes blocked and express unhappiness about it. The Senators want those players to respond to the challenge.

17. Another vet the Senators pursued: Tyler Toffoli.

18. Travis Green is a gambler. He’ll bet on himself. It’s a good omen for his relationship with the Canucks that they added Travis Hamonic, because that’s something Green desired. He’s got a good relationship with Jim Benning. But he has a sense of his market, and he’ll bet on himself to get it.

19. I do expect to see Ben Hutton somewhere soon. Boston and New Jersey are among those with interest.

20. Dallas took a run at Erik Haula.

21. When Boston was eliminated by Tampa Bay, the post-series Zoom calls were incredibly emotional. One reason that this group of Bruins won a Cup and reached two other Finals is they are determined and they care. But one source warned it was deeper than that: “They look like they know this might be it for this group,” he said at the time.

That’s proven prophetic with Zdeno Chara’s move to Washington. The hardest part of Chara’s off-season was not deciding where he was going to play, but if he was going to play. If not the Bruins, was retirement the best option for him and his family? Once he decided to compete, then he considered other options.

I’m not in any hurry to see him retire, and it’s foolish to underestimate his potential impact in Washington.

22. Every time I see a Sidney Crosby/Nathan MacKinnon commercial, I wonder if they’re going to find a way to play together some day.

23. In the final blog of last season, there was a note on Vince Dunn and wondering about the Blues’ plans for him. In a year where a lot of players were squeezed, Dunn’s one-year deal came in higher than expected. It surprised other teams. That shows the Blues think positively of him, set a high bar to trade him and probably did legwork on his next contract.

24. Boston and Philadelphia were given the option to play two games in Lake Tahoe, but decided against it.

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25. In 2008, NBA player Keith Van Horn, who hadn’t played a game in two years, was needed to complete a huge trade that sent Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks. That same season, Aaron McKie, who was actually an assistant coach at the time, was activated to complete Pau Gasol’s move to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“It’s a legitimate method, allowed under the collective bargaining agreement,” Mitch Kupchak, then the Lakers’ GM, told the New York Times. “It’s been done for years.”

Neither player had signed retirement papers, allowing those teams the loophole to include them. I mention those moves as the Lightning’s LTIR manoeuvring takes some heat. I’m in the “it doesn’t bother me” camp. Not every team likes it, but player movement is critical for both fan interest and clubs to improve themselves. These loopholes are essential to that. They come with risks, but those are Tampa’s to take. Honestly, I wish teams were allowed to trade cap space.

26. The Lightning traded for Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson’s cap hits, but also considered Henrik Zetterberg’s.

27. Wildest off-season rumour I chased: that NBA teams who shared arenas with NHL clubs wanted their hockey partners to move out for this season because of concerns COVID was more catchable in lower humidity.

28. The NHL’s biggest priority right now is starting the season, but, at some point, teams are wondering if there will be any changes to the draft. Selecting 18-year-olds is already a crapshoot. Now it’s going to be even harder with so few opportunities to scout them. Hopefully, the CHL finds a way (more for the kids’ sake than anything), but, if not, I wonder if regional combines featuring scrimmages are created a few months down the road to give everyone an opportunity to see and be seen.

29. One thing scouts are happy about: COVID-related safety measures had previously shut down opportunities to watch potential No. 1 pick Owen Power at Michigan. That’s changed, and he can be seen in person once again.

30. The best team-defence performance I’ve seen in a tournament was Team Canada 2014 in Sochi. With one more victory, these Canadian Juniors would be right with them — although this version of Team USA will be a handful.

31. My first game at Hockey Night in Canada was on Oct. 9, 2003. Montreal at Ottawa, on a Thursday night. We hit the air at 7:00 pm ET, with my debut appearance two minutes after the show began — a quick interview with Senators GM John Muckler. Martin Havlat was unsigned, and that’s what we were going to talk about.

As the show went on-air, I heard the HNIC theme and froze. I remember thinking, “What the $#&* am I doing here? This is Hockey Night in Canada.” I turned to Muckler and said, “This is probably the first time the person interviewing you is more nervous than you are.” He looked over and said, “I doubt it.”

It’s very possible I would have totally flopped in the moment without that great line.

The night Dominik Hasek was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, I ran into Muckler. He said, “Who is your best goaltender of all time?” I replied that I’m a Patrick Roy guy. He looked at me like I urinated all over his corn flakes. “Hasek,” he said dismissively, so disappointed in my answer. I laughed. RIP.

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