The Return of the NHL
Hockey is back.
So much time passed – and so much changed – over the 142 days between meaningful National Hockey League games that it feels like an entirely new season rather than the restart of 2019-20.
Here is a refresher, along with 10 storylines to watch during this sprint for Lord Stanley as the NHL hits play on Saturday after a historic pause:
1. Bringing Stanley Home: With the Stanley Cup being contested in Canada in its entirety for the first time in 95 years, how many of Canada’s six clubs will make it through to the qualifiers? The maximum is five, with one of the Flames or Jets bound to be knocked off in five or fewer, but none earned a guaranteed chance to end the 27-year drought.
2. Lose for Lafreniere: Given the commitment to testing, protocol and life in the bubble, no team will be happy with a five-game showing in Toronto or Edmonton. But a 12.5 per cent shot at the No. 1 overall pick and Alexis Lafreniere is a heck of a consolation prize. Teams would need to finish in 30th place over a full 82-game season for those odds. The NHL’s second phase of the Draft Lottery will be held on Aug. 10.
3. Baby Boosters: Five players from Team Canada’s gold medal-winning 2020 World Junior entry are on return-to-play rosters: captain Barrett Hayton (Arizona), Bowen Byram (Colorado), Ty Dellandrea (Dallas), Liam Foudy (Columbus) and Connor McMichael (Washington). Foudy, Byram, McMichael and Toronto’s Nick Robertson are making the jump from the CHL. Edmonton’s Philip Broberg, 19, is also knocking on the door of a spot in the Oil’s top six after playing this season in Sweden.
4. No Home Cooking: Bubble life will bring the purest experiment yet on the benefits of home-ice advantage. Historically, the home team has a .575 winning percentage (2393-1774) in Stanley Cup playoff games. In addition, the home team has enjoyed an advantage of 1,042 fewer penalties than the road team over the last three regular seasons, according to The Athletic. We will soon find out the impact of missing fervent fans in buildings, which could also put a dent into game intensity – while broadcast microphones pick up everything.
5. Remember These Guys? Trade-deadline acquisitions only got two weeks to get acclimated before the NHL hit pause. Don’t be surprised when you see these guys on the scoresheet with their new clubs: Tyler Toffoli (Vancouver), Andreas Athanasiou (Edmonton), Cody Eakin and Dylan DeMelo (Winnipeg), Jason Zucker (Pittsburgh), Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene (Islanders), Robin Lehner and Alec Martinez (Vegas), Ondrej Kase (Boston), Erik Haula (Florida), Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon (Washington), Patrick Marleau and Conor Sheary (Pittsburgh), Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow (Tampa Bay), with Vincent Trocheck, Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen in Carolina.
6. Break out the Brooms? There are eight juicy best-of-five showdowns in the qualifier round, the first five-game NHL series in more than 34 years. The last time there were five-game series, in 1986, six of those eight ended in three-game sweeps. Nearly half of all best-of-five series – 27 of 56 – held between 1980 and 1986 ended in a sweep.
7. Information Trickle: Unlike the NBA, the NHL has no independent media inside the bubble. Media are not permitted to view practices or morning skates, and teams have the option to skip morning skate media availabilities until the Conference Finals. The NHL has already clamped down on injury information in deference to medical privacy laws with COVID-19. But will the NHL-approved information flow leave knowledgeable fan bases in the dark on changes and developments until puck drop each game?
8. Friendliest Playoffs Ever? The Stanley Cup playoffs are legendary for the healthy hate that ratchets up during every series. It’s one of hockey’s great calling cards. But with players sharing communal spaces while staying in the same hotels in the bubble, it’s possible this once-in-a-lifetime playoff run won’t feel the same. One player described the scene in his Toronto hotel as a ‘minor hockey tournament with booze.’ Will there be a record set for fewest fights or suspensions? Will the hockey be any less fractious? Without the energy supplied by home crowds, will players be calmer? We’ll see.
9. Fashion Forward: The NHL abolished its traditional, buttoned-up dress code for these most unusual playoffs. Get your popcorn ready. Players will have a chance to express themselves in ways we haven’t seen before and fans are ready to gobble up their new game-day threads on social media.
10. The David Ayres Effect: With no way to replace goaltenders in the bubble, even in the event of injury, more teams have four goaltenders (13) than three goaltenders (11) on their 31-man roster. There are also a number of tantalizing tandems where the bona fide starter is still to be determined: Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen (Edmonton), David Rittich/Cam Talbot (Calgary), Elvis Merzlikins/Joonas Korpisalo (Columbus), Juuse Saros/Pekka Rinne (Nashville), Matt Murray/Tristan Jarry (Pittsburgh), plus Marc-Andre Fleury figures to have a relatively short leash in Vegas with Lehner on the bench. Then again, all leashes might be short in a five-game series.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli