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As the NHL moves through its return-to-play phases, the league has announced August 1 as the official return of the 2019-20 season.
Mini training camps are slowly ramping up for the 24 teams preparing for the expanded playoff format, which begins with a best-of-five play-in series; the top two teams in each division at the March break will have a bye for the play-in round.
With COVID-19 continuing to make its way through the four major North American sports, the risk for contracting the virus — despite intended efforts to mitigate its effects on the NHL — remains a reality for participants.
On Saturday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly stated that the league is dedicated to preserving medical privacy and is prohibiting individual teams from releasing any COVID-19 statistics.
“At least for now, we're going to maintain a policy where the league is announcing [testing] numbers and clubs are prohibited from giving any information with respect to COVID test results; and, for the purposes of making the system work, any injury information, going forward,” Daly told Greg Wyshynski of ESPN.
The NHL’s commitment to player privacy was a key factor, according to NHL Player’s Association rep, Mathieu Schneider. There have already been leaked reports of Toronto Maple Leafs star center Auston Matthews’ contraction (and recovery) from the virus.
The NHL has already reported a total of 35 cases among 396 tested players since June 8. Apart from the Matthews reports, no other individual player or staff member has been named. Positive-tested players underwent self-isolation in line the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines.
In late June, the entire Tampa Bay Lightning facility was shut down following a small outbreak of cases. It occurred simultaneously with the NHL entering Phase II, which expanded the number of allowable skaters to participate on the ice together.
With the season restart approaching fast, the reality of the virus has seen several playoff-bound skaters opt out. Several players cited the virus’ heightened risk to those with underlying conditions as grounds to remove themselves from the 2020 postseason.
Forward Sven Baertschi (Vancouver Canucks) and defensemen Steven Kampfer (Boston Bruins), Travis Hamonic (Calgary Flames), Roman Polak (Dallas Stars), Mike Green (Edmonton Oilers), Karl Alzner (Montreal Canadiens), and Zach Trotman (Pittsburgh Penguins) are among known players to opt out of the playoffs.
There does not seem to be any factor in six of the seven aforementioned players being defensemen, but their typical on-ice duty of working the corners and staying tight to their opponents could be a deciding factor in terms of physical contact and virus risk.
Hamonic was the first player to openly opt out and has a history of putting his family first.
A statement from Calgary Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic. pic.twitter.com/saLjEKoyQA— Titan Sports 365 (@TitanSports365) July 11, 2020
With two weeks ahead of the opening of the 2020 postseason, there should be no surprise to see an increase in the number of players opting out, especially if the NHL puts the proverbial foot down.
There has been continued reports of the NHL’s unwillingness to allow players with underlying conditions to participate in the playoffs. A forced opt-out by the NHL could become a sticky situation, particularly due to the still vastly unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 and what constitutes an underlying condition.
Notable names to have become the face of underlying conditions are Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi and New York Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko.
Domi, 25, and Kakko, 19, are both Type-1 diabetics with celiac disease and are determined to have heightened risks of complication with COVID pending contraction.
Domi has stated he will wait 7-10 days before deciding whether to join his teammates. The Rangers have stated they expect to have Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick 2019, in camp ahead of Aug. 1, but would leave the decision to play up to him.
Dates To Circle
The return of the NHL is not the only good hockey news. The ratification of a six-year CBA extension between the NHL and NHLPA means no work-related stoppage to the NHL until 2026 at the earliest.
Moreover, the NHL announced that its players will be eligible for the next two Winter Olympic Games (2022 and 2026).
The NHL set forth the following tentative schedule:
- Qualifying Round: Aug. 1
- Draft Lottery Phase II: Aug. 10
- The eight qualifying round losers will be entered into Phase II of the Draft Lottery, where one team will win the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft
- Award Stanley Cup: Early Oct.
- NHL Draft: Oct. 6
- Start of Free Agency: Nov. 1
- 2020-21 Regular Season: Dec. 1
Fans Of The Less Fortunate
The Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks, and New Jersey Devils are the seven teams that missed out on the expanded playoff format.
While there are typically 15 non-playoff teams, the expanded format hurts the above seven teams more than usual. For bad teams, development of top prospects is key to competing again in the future. The shutdown of hockey leagues across the world has put a halt to these players’ development.
With the March hiatus and outline of dates listed above, these seven teams and their players and prospects will have gone approximately nine months without playing true competitive hockey.
The best way to develop is to learn firsthand, meaning these seven teams are virtually being left behind and in danger of falling further back from the rest of the league that prides itself in parity.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.