Biggest Storylines Heading into the 2020 NHL Playoffs
We're almost there—hopefully.
NHL teams are into the second week of their 2020 summer training camps. They will be flying to their Canadian hub cities of Edmonton, Alberta, (Western Conference) and Toronto (Eastern Conference) on Sunday.
If plans hold up, each team will play one exhibition game between July 28-30. Then, the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs will begin Aug. 1.
By taking their puck north of the border, the NHL put player health at the forefront, staging its postseason in a country that has done better at responding to the COVID-19 pandemic than the U.S.
The next big challenge will be getting players safely out of their home cities and into the hubs. During their Phase 3 training camps, they have been tested regularly for COVID-19 and have been asked to exercise caution but have not been quarantined.
Here are the biggest storylines to watch as the NHL restart draws near.
Will the Games Actually Be Played?
Uncertainty is a constant when it comes to COVID-19. But at this point, everything looks pretty good.
TSN reported that all players and staff outside of Canada will need to deliver "three negative tests spaced 48 hours apart in the seven days prior to travel" to the country. Additional testing can be done if necessary to rule out false positives.
The good news is the league reported just two new positives during the week of July 13-17.
There was a scare in Edmonton last week when a severe storm caused water damage inside Rogers Place, but Mayor Don Iveson told the Canadian Press that there was no structural damage to the facility. Cleanup is on as the Edmonton Oilers training camp continues, and Western Conference games are expected to proceed as scheduled.
How Many Positive Tests Are Too Many?
If NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have a number in mind, they are keeping it under wraps.
"I think one positive test shouldn't shut down the tournament, but obviously, we have to be very cognizant of player health and safety," Daly told the media on July 11. " And if we have an outbreak situation, it turns into a different judgment at the end of the day. There's no hard-and-fast numbers on that. That's more a sense of the medical professionals, and we'll take our lead from them."
The league's Return To Play plan gives Bettman the authority to postpone, move, delay or cancel games if there's a risk to player health or the integrity of the competition.
Players were also given the opportunity to opt out of the tournament without penalty. Only a handful did so, with the biggest names being defensemen Travis Hamonic of the Calgary Flames and Mike Green of the Oilers.
What Will Games Be Like Without Fans in the Stands?
Different, that's for sure.
The NHL's chief content officer, Steve Mayer, has been tasked with creating an in-arena atmosphere that will translate well on television.
According to Greg Wyshynski of ESPN, season-ticket holders have been asked to submit 30-second videos of themselves cheering for their favorite teams. Empty arenas are also allowing broadcast crews to create new camera positions, which will allow fresh angles for viewers at home.
No word yet on whether music or background crowd noise could run during game play, but the contests are expected to run on a five-second delay in an effort to keep any profanity from players off the airwaves.
A limited number of media members will be allowed into the buildings in Edmonton and Toronto. The Athletic reported that players from other teams will also be allowed to watch in Edmonton from one of two arena restaurants.
Will Injury and Illness Details Continue to Be Kept Under Wraps?
That could ease up as we go along if positive COVID-19 tests remain rare.
"At least for now, we're going to maintain a policy where the league is announcing basically league numbers," Daly said on July 11. "And clubs are really prohibited from giving any information with respect to COVID test results, and for purposes of making the system work, any injury information going forward."
The policy is designed to protect player privacy, but speculation has been spreading like wildfire every time a player is absent from a workout. Some teams, like the Vegas Golden Knights, have made a point of letting media know when a player's absence is not COVID-related, such as with Max Pacioretty on Monday.
Expect to keep hearing about players being "unfit to play" for a while. But don't be surprised if the muzzle loosens once we get into the games that matter.
Will Round-Robin Teams Be at a Disadvantage?
Hard to say.
The top four teams in each conference are playing three games against each other, with the results determining first-round playoff seeding. Those stakes are high enough that players should bring their best efforts.
Round-robin teams could also benefit from the extra time to tweak their lineups and amp up team chemistry. A Game 1 loss for them can be brushed off, while a qualifying-round favourite could quickly find itself under big pressure in those best-of-five series.
After running away with the Presidents' Trophy this season, the Boston Bruins deserve a better fate than having to earn the right to keep their top seed. But Boston has had a disjointed training camp, missing numerous players, including star sniper David Pastrnak.
The Bruins are fortunate that they have extra time to prepare. They won't play a game that really counts until Round 1 gets underway Aug. 11.
Which Dark-Horse Clubs Are Primed to Play Spoiler?
Any of them.
Even in normal years, upsets are commonplace in the NHL playoffs. Just last season, all four division winners were eliminated in the first round.
Picking up nearly five months after they played their most recent games, younger teams may have an edge with their fresher legs and raw enthusiasm. Or veteran experience could help keep teams on track. Veterans are also more aware of the importance of every opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup.
Stanley Cup winners are always the result of a unique alchemy. In that sense, this year will be no different.
Whether they're favorites or underdogs, there is a silver lining for all eight teams that lose in the qualifying round. When Phase 2 of the 2020 draft lottery is held Aug. 10, those eight will each have a 12.5 percent chance of being awarded the No. 1 pick in the next draft and the chance to select star prospect Alexis Lafreniere.