Playoffs will break new ground
COVID-19 protocols put a different twist on hockey’s restart
The Stanley Cup playoffs are always unpredictable, and now a variable is being tossed in — a global pandemic.
The league, which went on hiatus March 12 because of the coronavirus, is ready to move to Phase 3 of its return when training camps open Monday.
If all goes well, 24 teams will report to hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton on July 26, the playoff qualifying round will start Aug. 1 with five games and the Stanley Cup will be awarded as late as October.
Testing, social distancing and hygiene will be the most important defensive systems to make sure it’s carried off.
“We’re all living day-to-day here, and we’ll see what happens,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday during a Zoom call. How the tournament will work: In training camps, teams will be limited to 30 skaters, plus an unlimited number of goalies. Players and other club and facility personnel were to be tested 48 hours before they arrived and then will be tested every other day. Temperature checks will be done before anyone can enter a facility.
If players show COVID-19 symptoms, they will self-isolate and be tested. Asymptomatic players also will self-isolate if they test positive and must have two negative tests 24 hours apart before returning.
Players also are being asked to limit their public access off-ice before heading to the hub cities to avoid the chance of exposure. The NHL last week said that 23 of 296 players tested during voluntary workouts were positive, a 5% rate. Another 12 had tested positive since March.
“You need to make your inner circle pretty darn small because what you do affects everybody else,” Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said in a recent Zoom call. “That’s pretty much the basis of what a team is anyway. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. But at this point, your weakest link can take down your whole team.”
Players have until Monday to opt out. Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic has done so, as have the Stars’ Roman Polak, the Canucks’ Sven Baertschi and the Oilers’ Mike Green.
Once in the hub cities, rosters will be 31 players and teams can bring a total of 52 people. Players will get a floor of a hotel. No one can leave the hub except for a medical appointment or a family emergency. Quarantine will be required when returning.
No fans are allowed. No family can show up until the conference finals, which will be held in Edmonton. Media interaction with players and coaches will be by Zoom. Players will be tested daily.
“One positive test shouldn’t shut down the tournament, but obviously we have to be very cognizant of player heath and safety, and if we have an outbreak situation, that turns into a different judgment,” Daly said. “But there’s no hard and fast numbers on that.”
On the ice, four bye teams will play a round robin to determine seeding at the top of each conference, while the remaining eight teams per conference will play a best-of-five series.
EASTERN CONFERENCE (Toronto)
Bye teams: Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Lightning.
Qualifying round: Rangers vs. Hurricanes; Panthers vs. Islanders; Canadiens vs. Penguins; Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs.
WESTERN CONFERENCE (Edmonton)
Bye teams: Blues, Avalanche, Stars, Golden Knights.
Qualifying round: Blackhawks vs. Oilers; Wild vs. Canucks; Coyotes vs. Predators; Jets vs. Flames.
Teams will be reseeded after the qualifying round, and the first round will begin Aug. 11. The second round tentatively will start Aug. 25, the conference finals Sept. 8 and the Stanley Cup Final on Sept. 22.
NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr said he believes players will adjust to the unusual situation because they’re professionals.
“They adapt to whatever the world throws at them: a new coach, an injury ... a new opportunity, an illness, whatever it is,” he said on the joint call with the NHL.
The draft will be held Oct. 9-10, around the time the next season usually starts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he plans to have a full 2020-21 season, even if it has to run later than usual.
Kirby Dach (77) will see a lot more of Connor McDavid when the Blackhawks and Oilers meet in the qualifying round.