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31 Thoughts: Fun week, but high hurdles remain for NHL resumption

• What’s next in NHL return process?
• Playoffs may feature re-seeding — not a bracket
• Canucks exploring U.S.-based training camp

It was nice to talk about the fun stuff. Playoff matchups, lottery odds, votes of confidence, players recovering from injury — all of the great things we miss pontificating about. The last few days have been a good public-relations burst for the NHL and its players.

There are people who grinded hard to get things done. They deserved that reward.

The Return to Play committee put in legit work. It wasn’t easy, and not everyone was happy, but no one faulted the effort. And, as difficult as that was, putting together the 22-page protocol for Stage II of the return process might have been even more challenging. It doesn’t even require mandatory attendance for players, so imagine what it will take to complete the protocols for Stages III and IV, which involve training camps and games, respectively.

The process will be detail-oriented and intense.

There are no guarantees. There are so many unknowns about COVID-19, so many assurances necessary about safety and testing for players, coaches, officials, executives, team staff and all workers located at either the rink or elsewhere in the “bubble.”

As the players discussed their vote for the playoff system, there was plenty of debate about whether or not they should play at all. Finally, they separated that conversation into, “Let’s vote on the playoff format now, and get to the other question after.”

Now, decisions are getting a little more “real.” There is a playoff system. On Tuesday, Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is three to four weeks away from selecting the two hub cities that will host potential games. At that point, we are talking about contractual agreements. Maybe there will be incentives for the NHL to come. There will certainly be costs to the league.

While you have to believe there will be protection in case the pandemic does not allow competition, the league is going to have to know whether or not the players are truly committed to play.

You can’t possibly talk to every player, but you try to get a pulse for what’s happening. When news leaked out that the bottom seven teams were going to be eliminated from the playoffs, it seemed that the percentage of players willing to play significantly grew. But, in the last few days, there’ve been more rumours of … let’s call it uncertainty.

As I write this, it’s hard to determine just how widespread those feelings are. I suspect there is going to be plenty of work over the next few days to determine that.

The family issue is a big one. During a conference call on Wednesday, Columbus captain Nick Foligno said, “If somebody tells me I can’t see my family, there’s going to be a fight.”

The NBA is working on bringing all returning teams to Disney World in Orlando. ESPN reported Wednesday that it and the National Basketball Players Association are formulating a plan to allow some family to join early-round winners once some opponents are eliminated in the playoffs. That would keep the numbers relatively low. And you can assume that if one league is looking at something, they all are.

Obviously, health is another huge issue. By the time players are expected to report to camp (Stage III), there’s going to have to be some clarity on immune-compromised players and/or staff. Interestingly, when asked on Tim & Sid about making sure players are covered by long-term insurance, NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said, “I really don’t believe in the end that’ll be a major issue.”

At times, it’s been suggested by not only players, but team executives, that we wait until the end of the summer before returning to training camps and playing games. I can understand why the players would want that. They are creatures of habit, and it is what they are used to.

The fear there is the second wave during flu season. According to multiple sources, the epidemiologists advising both the NHL and NHLPA have advised against waiting, and Bettman, in particular, sees it as a major reason to target late-July/August/September as prime playing time.

I’m not going to judge anyone else’s choice. I’m ready to go back to work, but not everyone would make the same decision. Is not playing this summer a preference or a health choice? It’s not an easy question to ask, but if it is a heath reason, why would they be any more comfortable playing in December or January without a vaccine? What would we be looking at then?

The NHL and NHLPA deserve a ton of credit for keeping the financials private, so far. Baseball is going through a very ugly, public spat with players openly taking social-media aim at ownership. Fans despise labour disputes when life is good. It’s incredibly tone-deaf now.

NHLers have been told that coming back to finish this year might save them seven or eight points on escrow (probably moving it down from 35 to 27 or 28). There are some — again, I’m not sure how many — who don’t think that’s worth it. I do believe the league is willing to ease that number by collecting those payments over several years. But I’m not sure a full CBA can be done by the time games will be played, and is the NHL prepared to make that deal without a long-term commitment? It’s a delicate dance, because the owners will argue (if pushed) that their bottom lines are getting hit hard, too.

I’m always optimistic, and that’s important — especially now. This is not impossible, but it is challenging. Tuesday and Wednesday were fun days, a respite from doom and gloom. Time to roll up the sleeves once again, more problems to solve.

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. CBA talks are expected to ramp up enough that the NHLPA will soon form a negotiating committee. Still active from the 2012–13 version: Ron Hainsey and Ryan Miller.

2. Commissioner Bettman hinted at big costs to the league for the testing procedure. Word is the NHL is looking at $120–$130 per test. At 25,000 tests, that’s more than $3 million. Not insignificant.

3. Thing I didn’t like this week: the online beatdown Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn and Carolina’s Jordan Martinook got for explaining their team’s “no” votes on the Return to Play protocol. The Hurricanes and Lightning were the lone dissenters. We complain that hockey players are too boring or too conservative, then we complain when they don’t conform to the majority. We can’t have it both ways. Killorn/Martinook ate it for their teammates, too, since they didn’t vote solely on their own feelings.

4. A few sources hinted at a “Carolina plan” setting up the playoffs. The Hurricanes politely declined to share a copy of what was proposed, but I’ve asked around and got two different ideas. Some of it was submitted directly by the team to the league, some of it via players through the union.

One suggestion: Instead of a play-in round, weight the 12 teams in each conference by the percentage chance they had to make the final 16. Each team would then play three games, leading to the “final” regular-season standings. Therefore, instead of Chicago and Montreal getting closer to a 50 per cent chance of making the playoffs, their odds would remain at three per cent and 0.1 per cent, respectively.

A second suggestion was to force their play-in opponent, the Rangers, to win four of the five games. If Carolina won twice in that scenario, the series would have been over and the Hurricanes would have automatically advanced. Both proposals were rejected.

5. Nothing is certain, but I do think there’s a decent chance re-seeding becomes the playoff setup as opposed to bracketing.

6. I don’t profess to know the CBA as well as some of the people involved, but I was talking to a team affected by the NHL’s desire not to allow anyone to sign players for the remainder of the 2019–20 season. This includes valuable KHL transplants like Kirill Kaprizov (Minnesota), Alexander Romanov (Montreal) and Ilya Sorokin (Islanders). His position was, “If it is allowed every other year, what in our agreement prevents it this year?” I honestly don’t know if he’s got a legit beef or not, but the June 1 entry-level deadline will be pushed back to July 1 to give everyone more time to figure this out.

7. Vancouver GM Jim Benning said Wednesday the Canucks are considering a U.S.-based training camp if crossing the Canadian border requires quarantine when Stage III begins. I don’t think the Canucks are alone on that.

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

8. I’d said earlier this week that Los Angeles was a “late entry” into the hub race, but it was pointed out that although we didn’t hear about the Kings’ interest, they were one of the first teams to pitch. The league and players love the L.A. Live setup — it’s super-convenient. Biggest challenge is practice availability, and that’s why Anaheim’s beautiful new practice rink would be part of this bid. It’s a 45-minute bus ride between them.

9. Buffalo owner Kim Pegula announced this week that GM Jason Botterill will return. I checked in on New Jersey, but the Devils are not yet ready to make any proclamations. Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald said earlier this week that “the organization has been fantastic to me. They are allowing me to be the GM of this team, whether it’s an interim tag or not.”

But I do think ownership is continuing its search at the executive level. Admittedly, I find it hard to read and am not sure about where this will go. Personally, I feel that, at some point, you have to make your call and end the uncertainty.

10. As for the coaching search, word is the Devils are eyeing at least four candidates. I believe that includes incumbent Alain Nasreddine, along with Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette and John Stevens. There may be one more. The wrinkle here is that Fitzgerald did the initial interviews, and will any of them want him as their boss should they be choice? It’s also possible ownership will want a conversation before any decision is made. It’s a unique time to try and hire someone.

11. For almost 35 years, Les Jackson’s been a Star. Hired as an assistant coach when the franchise was still in Minnesota in 1985, he stayed with the organization every season but one since. His contract will not be renewed. End of an era, for sure. He’s been a huge part of that organization’s success.

12. Chicago had one of the largest scouting staffs in the NHL (if not the largest). They will also be making some cuts, mostly on the pro side.

13. It’s eye-opening to hear Buffalo’s Jack Eichel vent his frustration, but I don’t think it will surprise the Sabres. Everything he says publicly, they’ve heard privately.

14. Other things you may have missed from an active Wednesday: Detroit GM Steve Yzerman confirmed Jeff Blashill will remain as head coach and that the Wings will name a captain before next season. (You’re not going to get great betting odds on Dylan Larkin for that.) Great news for Carolina and the Islanders as Dougie Hamilton and Adam Pelech will be ready to return from what were supposed to be season-ending injuries. Same for Jonathan Drouin in Montreal. Pittsburgh’s Nick Bjugstad had a setback and is out for the season, while Winnipeg does not yet have clarity on Bryan Little. San Jose GM Doug Wilson did not commit to Bob Boughner’s return as head coach.

15. When I began a conversation with Detroit’s Sam Gagner, he was finishing a 75-minute online Harvard Business School class. Dominic Moore sold him on the idea, and Gagner was reviewing a case study. Is he thinking about his life after hockey?

“More recently than I ever have in the past,” Gagner answered. “I’m always going to try and stay in the game in some capacity, and the development side appeals to me. I’ve had to try and develop myself — grow in a lot of different ways — and I like the idea of helping other kids. I’m not sure I’d want to coach.”

Make no mistake about it, though — he still wants to play.

“I’d play another 10 years if I could, although I’m not sure they’ll let me,” he laughed.

16. I reached out to Gagner because he’s part of a group in a weird situation: unrestricted free agent, no possible games until at least December, a long time before he’ll be able to sort out his future.

“It’s a lot,” Gagner said. “Not only is it up in the air when you’re going to play or where you’re going to play, but having a family of three kids, there’s that other factor of school starting in September. So there’s a lot on your mind.”

The best way to power through that is enjoying the time with your family, and he’s doing that. But Gagner has also come up with an interesting way to approach the time. A few years ago, he read about Tom Brady’s routine — and will adopt it.

“No matter when his season ends, he keeps training until the Super Bowl champion is crowned, because he approaches every year as if he will be playing then. So now I’m training as if I’m in the playoffs…. Yes, it’s hard to recreate (that intensity), but it will keep me busy and ready.”

I thought it was an interesting, smart idea.

17. I asked Gagner about trying to find a month-to-month deal if the European leagues start on time.

“Remember the lockout-shortened year (2012–13)? Some guys took time off, others went and played. I played and it really helped me. At that time, I didn’t have a family…. I’m not sure my wife will let me go.”

He laughed.

“I do want to play in the NHL, so I haven’t thought a lot about it.”

Gagner said there hasn’t been much discussion about an extension with Detroit, but he understands why because there’s so much up in the air. They will need good pros. What’s for sure: He’s making a plan to be ready.

This is a long, uncertain stretch for UFAs on the non-playoff teams.

18. Gagner’s family is still in Edmonton. His summer home is in Ontario’s cottage country. Will he drive cross-country in an RV like Connor McDavid?

“That is the plan,” he answered. “Although we’ll need a bigger one than he did.”

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19. Hockeysverige editor-in-chief Uffe Bodin was an excellent guest on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast this week. He pointed out that one prospect who decided to stay home because of the uncertainty is San Jose’s Jonathan Dahlen. Bodin mentioned Lias Andersson as another possibility, but because Andersson has another year on his entry-level contract with the Rangers, New York has a say in that. Dahlen is a restricted free agent.

20. So, what happens if one of the eight “play-in” losers wins one of the top three draft selections, and, unfortunately, we never get to the playoffs. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said during his conference call it is his understanding that the second-phase odds would be determined by regular-season points percentage. That helps the Canadiens.

21. Calgary’s Elias Lindholm has switched agencies to Newport. He has four seasons remaining on his current contract.

22. The NHL officially announced its regular-season award winners on Thursday: Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak for the Rocket Richard; Leon Draisaitl for the Art Ross; Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak for the Jennings.

I’m really fascinated to see how the play-in games get handled, because of one particular case: Carson Soucy. The Minnesota defender had a really nice season, making the good jump at 25. Because he’s played only 62 regular-season and playoff games so far, he can become a Group VI unrestricted free agent. If he gets up to 80, he moves to a restricted free agent. So the Wild would need to play 18 games to get there. Debate the odds amongst yourselves, but you have to think any play-in games count. With the cap squeeze coming, a cost-efficient, improving option like Soucy has value.

23. I thought someone was pulling my leg with this, but it’s apparently true: One kind of funny issue is the NHL and NHLPA schedule the arbitrators they want for the summer, when they normally hold the process. Now that it may be moved into the fall, they’re worried they won’t get the arbitrators they want, because they’ll be committed elsewhere. It’s being worked on, but I smile at things I don’t realize become problems.

24. Daniel Briere told some good stories on our #Ask31 on Tuesday. The 307-goal scorer has one thing in common with all of us: In his new life as vice president of operations for ECHL Maine, he hates shipping fees.

“I’m a big stickler with shipping fees,” he said. “So we have our jersey [nameplates]. They will cost you $20 to $25 and the shipping fees will be $75 to $80 sometimes. It drives me absolutely nuts when I see that coming in.”

25. A few years ago, Sportsnet’s features department did a fantastic piece on Briere’s wife, Misha, a pilot and surgeon in the Air Force.

“She separated from the Air Force two years ago,” he said. “(She’s) back in internal medicine, it’s her intern year.”

Normally, interns are around 27 or 28, but Misha’s previous travels mean she’s a little older.

“It’s funny — she was a major in the Air Force, bossing people around…. She had a lot of people under her. And now she’s at the bottom go the pile, being bossed to. She works extremely hard — a lot of her patients are COVID-19 patients in the Philly area.”

Misha’s doing God’s work, we wish her — and the patients — all the best.

26. Reminder that this GoFundMe has until tomorrow to save the Alabama-Huntsville hockey program.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

27. There are always people looking for ways to break into hockey, and this week I came across 30-year-old Montrealer Ian Beckenstein. Who is he?

“I’m a normal guy pursuing my dream,” he said.

Beckenstein used to work in digital advertising sales, but it wasn’t for him. He did some statistical stuff for the well-known Lac St. Louis hockey program, and when he heard about the Canadiens’ AHL team moving from Hamilton to Laval a few years ago, he reached out to the team’s goalie/video coach, Marco Marciano, over LinkedIn. Beckenstein’s now spent three years with them on a part-time basis (in addition to a full-time job at Sportlogiq, although that’s dissipated due to the pandemic). Earlier this week, he published a blog post entitled, “How to Start Your Video Coaching Career.” I enjoyed the read.

28. For Laval, Beckenstein charts home time-on-ice and face-off winning percentage, including how successful everyone is in each particular dot. Every game day at 9:00 a.m., he presents a report to assistant coach Alex Burrows.

“If we’re playing Toronto, it’s a combination of all the face-off stats versus the Marlies to that point of the season.”

That wasn’t initially one of his responsibilities, but, as Beckenstein says, when you’re starting out, “You’re always trying to find a way to add value to what you do. You learn a lot of lessons about the right approach. When I started in Lac St. Louis, they told me to ‘be a superstar in your role.’ So, if you’re going to be the video coach, be the best video coach you can be. You must do your initial task properly, because if you can’t do that, you’re not getting other opportunities.”

Beckenstein’s done some IIHF work, and wants to move up the ladder using a combination of video and analytics.

“I don’t want to be preachy. I just want to give back — give people an idea of the software, equipment [and] cost for people who want to try this.”

29. Beckenstein on Burrows: “He’s super detailed, super sharp, not afraid to say, ‘Why is this like this?’ And he’s not asking to be mean — he wants to understand.”

He added that Burrows talks about Sami Salo quite a bit, because he’s set up a power-play strategy based on something the Finnish defender used to do. It’s called “The Salo.”

30. True or false: Jim Hughson missed a hole in one last week at Fairview Mountain’s golf course because the “noodle” on the pin got in the way?

31. Via video, Jeff Blashill addressed the graduates at De La Salle Collegiate in Warren, Mich. It was really good, and I wanted to end the blog with it. Blashill:

“(COVID-19) has robbed you of some great life experiences. But turbulence is part of life. No doubt you will face it (again) in your future. The question you have to answer then — as you do now — is, ‘When you get knocked down, will you get back up?’ The greatest people in our history all have one thing in common: They faced incredible hardships, and had a choice to make. They chose to persevere and always get back up. I urge you to do the same. Turbulent times are also great opportunities to learn and to grow, to strengthen your faith, and to gain perspective on what’s truly important in life. I am sure you have done all three. Don’t waste one day to be the best version of yourself. Never compare yourself to others. Be the best you. Chase your passion, whatever that may be. Never chase money and fame, for if you chase your passions, you will never work one day in your life. Enrich the lives of those around you; it’s amazing the impact you have on the people you touch. Make sure it’s a positive impact. Finally, live your life with an ‘earn this’ philosophy. Wake up every day trying to earn the great opportunities you have in life. You are not entitled to anything in this life, you simply get what you earn. Wake up and earn it.”

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